A chaotic scrum at the box office and a 20-minute delay on press night hardly bode well for Immortal, the first show from newly-formed theatre company Imperial House Productions. Thankfully, things improved markedly once the audience - Hugh Dancy, Ewan McGregor and Richard O'Brien among them - were finally seated for Ciaran McConville's play, a well-crafted wartime yarn of pluck behind the lines.
It is 16 November 1943. Shot down over occupied Holland, the survivors of a downed Lancaster bomber - American skipper Cliff Blake (James Cook), wounded engineer Jonathan Darwin (Sam Hoare), Cockney gunner 'Dicky' Dixon (Brett Goldstein), bomb aimer 'Sprog' Campbell (Oliver J Hembrough) and navigator Arthur Gimby (Matthew Steer) - take refuge in an abandoned school. One of their number can't walk, consigning them all to a state of Beckettian inertia as they ponder their next move. A storm rages outside - or does it? No one is quite sure, suggesting that, far from being "12 miles from Maastricht" as Arthur claims, they have stumbled into some Lowlands equivalent of the Twilight Zone.
For them, it seems, ze war is over. But there's still a lot of fight in this stranded quintet, which they end up taking out on each other, and later on the German-born Resistance operative (Madeleine Herrington) who may be their only hope of salvation. Joshing, bickering and generally making enough of a racket to be heard back home in Blighty, the squabbling squaddies grapple with their fear, rage, cowardice and paranoia.
"Do you think they'll remember us for this?" wonders one. "This cellar's going to be the death of us!" cries another. Meanwhile, references to tit-for-tat bombing raids and the use of phosphorus as a weapon link the piece to more contemporary conflicts.
Though steeped in 'Allo, 'Allo clichés and saddled with a weirdly inconclusive ending, John Terry’s persuasively acted production skilfully builds up claustrophobic tension with a scenario that plays rather like a Second World War version of Reservoir Dogs. Yes, the structure feels overly schematic, the focus politely shifting from one player to another and giving each a monologue with which they can hold centre stage. And yes, after so much shouting in a confined space, one is apt to agree with Goldstein's hate-driven Londoner when he says "talking's overrated".
Still, there is more than enough promise and talent here to justify Sienna Miller's patronage of this fledgling outfit.
- Neil Smith