More than 40 years on from the conflict that installed Margaret Thatcher as the self-appointed guardian of the remnants of the British Empire, it takes a bold ambition to revisit the messy, jingoistic enterprise that was the Falklands War and explore it from one hugely overlooked perspective: that of the islanders themselves.
Those of us of a certain vintage can recall the headlines – The Sun’s infamous ‘Gotcha!’ front page when the Belgrano was sunk with the loss of more than 300 Argentinian lives; the despatching of the naval Task Force to restore British sovereignty in the South Atlantic; and the subsequent landslide election victory in which Mrs T exploited her “Iron Lady” image to the full.
The divisive old campaigner inevitably makes an appearance here, rising out of the floor of the Swan like a spectre to haunt today’s Tory party, and it’s perhaps the most dramatic moment in Brad Birch’s surprisingly understated play, in which the turmoil, terror and tensions experienced by a group of Falkland rustics are rendered muted and pedestrian by a script told almost entirely in reported speech. The power and passion of the narrative are effectively neutered by being… well, narrated.
You can sense that director Aaron Parsons may fear so too, since he gives his hard-working cast a stack of bizarre, unnecessary and random things to do, as if their expositional history lecture to the audience isn’t exciting enough as it stands. So we get a model village of Falkland buildings courtesy of designer Aldo Vázquez manhandled all over the stage throughout proceedings by the cast, without any apparent logic or reason.
Meanwhile, Supertramp’s “Goodbye Stranger” gets a mystifying airing in the first half, while the Task Force itself is delivered to the (admittedly beautifully) harmonised strains of Spandau Ballet’s “Gold”. If there’s a metaphor in there somewhere, it passed me by completely. By contrast, other symbolism is deployed with a brutal lack of sophistication: when the Argentine forces take Port Stanley, for example, a semi-circle of automatic rifles descends from above to point menacingly at the reluctant islanders.
There are undoubtedly some funny lines, and in the fleeting moments where characters actually interact with each other, as opposed to talking about interacting with each other, the possibilities for real drama open up – before being snatched away all too quickly.
What rescues the whole thing from becoming a rather mundane affair at nearly three hours is the utterly committed and relentlessly focused cast. From Joanne Howarth’s poignant elderly resident Mrs Hargreaves or Alvaro Flores’s Argentinian officer – carefully sidestepping stereotype – to Sandy Foster’s spirited islander Rosie and Tom Milligan’s naive new schoolteacher John, the 12 performers are a constant joy to watch. Between them, their ability to inspire interest and involvement in what might otherwise be a fatally undramatic version of the thrilling events of 1982 redeems the production. It’s no Under Milk Wood or Come From Away, but the actors’ study of ordinary characters makes for intriguing, if not entirely gripping, watching.