The annual radio show at the Gladstone theatre returned to Ottawa this week. This year we were told that the radio play would be somewhat different and it was. The timing of the production coincides with the week of Remembrance Day and commemorates the centennial of the battles of Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele. Much of what is liked about this production is still there. Set designer Ivo Valentik has the familiar pieces of the radio station CGLD all there, decorated with adornments of the era tucked into the corners: A vintage cigar box and a soldier’s helmet inform us that this is war time.
Voices from the Front features verbatim letters, testimonials, reports and radio broadcasts with the songs from the eras. The first act focuses on the stories of the Great War. The second act World War II. John Cook and Teri Loretto-Valentik have done some editing and merging to parse a huge volume of material into an intimate radio play. The result is a story that is personal and poignant: a tremendously authentic story of the impact of war on the whole of society. The politicians, the media, the people aiding the war effort at home and the soldiers at the front are all paid homage their own words.
Director Teri Loretto-Valentik has the narrative shared by both the person writing the letter and the person reading it. A soldier will start speaking and part way through a family member will take the words over at the other end, so that the audience experiences both sides of the conversation. You feel the sense of longing of souls wanting to be reunited from both the battle front and the home front. It was a time when everyone valued a letter because it was a lifeline of communication and great care was taken with words.
It is radio but it also works as a play. In particular Chris Ralph and Michele Leblanc communicate with subtle touches and glances as parent’s reading letters from their son. The smiles, nods and the anxiety in their faces complete the story of the impact of the war.
In fact everything about this production works. In addition to playing broadcasters, Laurence Wall stretches his skill, most notably in a beautiful moment as a parson reading a poem about the senseless death of a soldier executed for cowardice in World War I. David Gerow gets to play the father of a soldier as well as several historical figures. Katie Bunting has many roles but is most memorable as a loving but insecure fiance Alice. Alex Zwierzchowski has a memorable premiere at Gladstone as a soldier in WWI and as Private Wilfred Cooper.
The Gladstone Sisters (Robin Guy, Nicole Milne and Doreen Taylor-Claxton) provide musical backdrop and have never sounded better. La Vie en Rose and Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy are just 2 of the gems that moved the audience or got their toes tapping.
There was no Foley artist this year. It would not have worked. Instead, sound designer Melinda Roy provides atmosphere through tolling bell towers, air raid sirens and the rumbling of bombs. Lighting designer David Magladry effectively adds subtle nuance with splashes of light that bring us closer to the front.
A war story can often trivialize or glamorize the horror of battle. Loretto-Valentik has kept the sacrifice and the duty of service to its barest truth by trusting in the words of the soldiers and the families that lived through it. For this reason it is a powerful story that stays honest and is incredibly moving. This may be the only time this is performed which is unfortunate. What better way is there to remember and honour our veterans than by listening to their own voices?
Reviewed by Jim Murchison, photo courtesy of Plosive productions
Director Teri Loretto-Valentik
featuring the voices of Katie Bunting
Introducing Alex Zwierzchowski
“Gladstone Sisters” Robin Guy, Nicole Milne and Doreen Taylor-Claxton
musical director Robin Guy
sound design Melinda Roy
lighting design David Magladry
set design Ivo Valentik
stage manager Louisa Haché
assistant stage manager Kat Wong