Most years, Plosive Productions’ annual Radio Show takes place close to Christmas with a seasonal or light-hearted theme: adaptations of classics like Miracle on 34th Street or Winnie-the-Pooh, for example.
This time, Plosive has scheduled the show – Voices from the Front – around Remembrance Day and focused on much grittier material: the letters written to family and sweethearts by soldiers serving at the front in the First and Second World Wars.
If you’ve ever read any of these letters, particularly on their original, now-yellowed paper, you know how effecting the words can be.
Generally written in unornamented style by young men firmly committed to God, king and country, they capture the trajectory of the soldiers’ lives abroad as they pinballed from a naive sense of adventure to deepening homesickness, bracing moments of camaraderie, faint hopes that the war would soon end, and a dawning realization of their own mortality.
They are, in a nutshell, a witness to why war is both an act of insanity and an apparently integral part of the human condition.
All of which puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of Voices from the Front. It’s weight which the show, written by John Cook and Teri Loretto-Valentik (who also directs), can’t always bear.
One of the problems is structural.
In keeping with the standard format of radio shows, actors read the material – which includes not just letters but also snippets of historical context – as though they are doing a live broadcast from a radio studio of the era. In this case, that means the six actors assume the characters of soldiers, family members and others as they read the letters, which include some from sweethearts back home to the soldiers on the front.
The letters are verbatim, culled directly from the correspondence of real-life Canadians who fought in the two wars.
The problem lies in the imposition of a standard radio show format on the material. For instance, the first act revolves around the letters of Will Cooper, a boy-next-door fellow comfortably enacted by Chris Ralph. That’s fine, except radio as the form of mass communication that it became in ensuing decades didn’t exist during the First World War, which – at least judging from the costumes – appears to be when this first “broadcast” is taking place.
That makes half the show a credibility-straining exercise in anachronism.
And while radio had come a long way by the time of World War Two, seemingly the setting of the second “broadcast,” it’s doubtful that, during those years of war effort boosterism, a show would have been broadcast that focused on the sad fate of its main character Wilfred Cooper, the soldier son of Will.
There are other loose ends. Why, for instance, does Alice (Katie Bunting) – Wilfred’s annoyingly cutesy girlfriend – suddenly announce she’s facing an emotional crisis? There is no preparation for the event, which feels like it’s been plucked willy-nilly from source material.
And why does David Gerow, an otherwise fine voice actor, sound like John Kennedy when he’s enacting Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden?
Not that Letters from the Front is a calamity.
Many of the readings are truthful in the way that can make verbatim theatre such a potent force.
Equally engaging are the segments that intersperse the dramatic readings. These include old-timey radio commercials – a very funny one touts Parkay Margarine as a healthful, scrumptious “food” – and slices of historical material like a news account of the discovery of concentration camp victims, living and dead, by the Allies, one of the show’s most powerful moments.
And The Gladstone Sisters, the on-stage vocal trio, range from glittering to spectacular as they sing songs of the times including It’s a Long Way to Tipperary and Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. The spectacular, by the way, is their rendition of In Flanders Fields.
Despite these and other highlights, the show is, in the end, a flawed salute to Canadians who did what they perceived to be the right thing.
Continues until Nov. 11.
Reviewed by Patrick Langston with Artsfile. ca, photo courtesy of Plosive Theatre.