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The Exeter Blitz Project (Exeter)

The Exeter Blitz Project at the Bike Shed Theatre is a small but elegant verbatim work with strong performances at its heart

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

© benjamin j borley

Verbatim theatre is theatrically trendy recently, helped no doubt by the success of Alexi Blythe's genre-changing 2011 musical London Road. Viva Voce's The Exeter Blitz Project does not attempt anything as daring as that high watermark, but delivers a small, simple and elegant reminisce from those who lived in the city of Exeter as the German aircrafts brought destruction to the "jewel of the west".

Dotted around the sides of Cherry Truluck's sparse design are hung a number of uniforms: nurses, soldiers, fire-wardens navel whites, which brings into mind the everyday heroism that those who lived through this war found themselves thrust into. Those are not the stories told however. The stories here are from the younger generation, a generation too young to go and fight and serve, but who could respond to the request of being interviewed by the company, the material then being edited into making this show.

So in the play, written (well, collated really) and directed by Jessica Beck and Helena Enright, we hear tales about evacuees, the social dances on a Saturday night, of bombings and royal visits, of a shop worker being told her husband may have perished at sea whilst serving. Throughout the stories are told gently, lightly, with humour, a twinkle in the eye of the performer which tells us what has been left unsaid is just as interesting - the stoicism of the people of Exeter in evidence throughout.

The acting is very good; each of the five catch the rhythm and cadences of their range of interviewees very well. But it is subtle and without the opportunity to delve into the actor's box of tricks they can struggle to give us immediate recognition of which character we are hearing from. This probably doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things; instead of character journeys and arcs what we get is a mosaic of memories and recollections which reaches its crescendo as the city is blitzed but somehow the Cathedral remains standing, a beacon of hope and pride for all who lived there.

Each of the actors have their moment. Rose Robinson brings a cheeky edge to her Cockney evacuee; Richard Pulman and Piers Wehner bring a lifetime of brotherhood bouncing off and finishing each others sentences; Tim Pritchett resembling a wartime leading man, all moustache and clipped vowels, contrasts the war of today with then "Whereas it was much more straightforward in those days, there were the goodies and the baddies, you know…" and Katie Villa is touching, tender and dazzling as, amongst others, the shop floor worker given potentially devastating news.

The Exeter Blitz Project is the kind of work that should be seen more of in the regions. It's a work that has been created for the region without an eye on a London transfer, that fosters a sense of community (there are a range of events tailored around the production) and has been collated and given a production of much confidence. For a couple of hours I was swept up in war time Exeter and its people and by the end it was a shame to say farewell to new found friends.

- Kris Hallett