Advertised as “an epic, intimate, family saga’, this new show from theatre company Kandinsky is certainly innovative in its approach.
Devised by its three performers (Nathaniel Christian, Rachel-Leah Hosker, and Hamish Macdougall), and directed by James Yeatman, The Winston Machine takes place to some degree in the shadow of wartime.
Co-designed by Joshua Gadsby and Naomi Kuyck-Cohen, we see a large table on a tilt, with chairs around which allow occasional access to the stage floor. Strip lighting allows a variation in tone – a daytime sky, a spotlight.
Charlotte and Bill are dating in wartime: he is off to the RAF and she softly purrs ‘Everytime You Say Goodbye’, a slash of red lipstick highlighting her mouth. It’s a playful tableau that sets the tone.
As the play progresses, we go back and forward in time, covering the ground of at least seven characters. The wartime lovers have a son, Mark, and granddaughter, Becky; Becky has a fiance, David, who wants them to buy a house; an old friend, Lewis, is back in town.
This production has moments of beauty and a lot of unanswered questions. Both Becky’s father and fiance seem controlling of her life, but that aspect isn’t fully explored. Lewis has a monologue about his potential future(s), but I didn’t feel we knew him enough to care.
As a family saga, it omits more than it shows. As we only see Bill as a grandad with Becky, we cannot glean her relationship with grandma Charlotte. We feel Mark might have been treated badly as a child, but we are not sure. There are snippets of storytelling we need to piece together.
You have to stay alert here: characters chop and change mid-scene, social media posts are read out, musical instruments are mimed. At times it can feel confusing, and the overall impression is of very broad characterisations which never really let us in.
As Becky seems to retreat into her 1940s songs, David attempts to pull her own “this is real life, it’s important”, while her dad rails against her for daring to laugh. As Bill’s old fighting jacket goes from pride of place to an afterthought, there may be hope for today’s young lovers – bit that’s far from clear.
The Winston Machine – which only includes the wartime PM through imitation and cosplay – is intriguing, but a little too ambitious and perplexing in its scope.
The three performer-devisers are good, but the play perhaps stretches itself just that bit too thin across its 80 minute runtime. Interesting evening, though.
The Winston Machine is currently on at the New Diorama Theatre until 19 February. After each performance there is free post-show pizza for audiences in the cafe-bar. Book your tickets here.
Image credit: Cesare De Giglio