What happens when a deeply felt romance and a city’s destruction seem to be balanced against the outcome of a Europe-wide war? In Alan Pollock’s drama postulates the impossible position of a young man in love whose work as a code-breaker at Bletchley Park gives him prior knowledge of the Nazi plan to destroy Coventry and with it Kate Stanley and her family. Bound strictly by the British government to secrecy, Michael Green finds himself in an untenable situation.
Michael, a Jew, meets Kate’s family and flinches at the traditional anti-Semitic prejudice of her parents (Barbara Tresidder and Jonathan Arundel); Michael’s official work as a German translator doesn’t help. The attitudes of many young women to the opportunities for excitement and self-assertion presented by wartime Britain are exemplified by Joan, Kate’s sister (Ally Murphy) and indeed by all the young women characters: Michael’s co-worker, Sheila (Cheryl Malam) relentlessly pursuing James for a sexual involvement; the female journalist (Jemma Jessup), photographing the ruins of Coventry, while remarking to Michael, “You’re rather pretty, aren’t you!” (or words to that effect.) We also meet hard-bitten leaders of the intelligence services, played by Derek Watts and John Martin in scenes set in 1940 and in a forward flash to 1976.
The most effective and moving part of the play comes after the interval. It’s a matter of historical fact that Coventry was devastated by the Luftwaffe on the night of 14th November. The atmosphere of fear and chaos created by Simon Price’s sound effects and Robert Sheppard’s lighting is tangible. References to looting and rape by opportunist criminals in Coventry add to the horror. The sense of the waves of attack, which lasted hours, is relentless and terrifying. It’s achieved without strobe effects, thankfully for those with medical concerns.
The Guildburys deserve much praise for the staging of this moving drama. Were I to pick out one performance to praise above others, it would be Ally Murphy as Joan, for her relaxed portrayal of this engaging character. But all of the cast succeed in bringing to life this tragic episode of recent British history.
The catastrophe allowed Coventry to be renewed, rebuilt not only by its survivors but also by injections of money from the US. But we’re reminded that seventy-seven years ago, one night in November saw 1500 citizens killed in the worst Luftwaffe attack of WWII on a British city outside London.