In Spitfire Sisters writers Doc Andersen-Bloomfield, Catherine Comfort and Heather Dunmore tell the largely unknown story of the World War 2 women pilots of the ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary). Their role was to deliver aircraft from the manufacturers to the various airfields around the country, ready for combat. They had to be able to fly all the different aircraft types, from old fashioned Tiger Moths right up to the huge four-engined bombers. And to keep things simple they had to make these journeys without using the instruments – all they had was a compass. The powers-that-be considered women would find it too difficult to learn how to use all the different instruments in the various planes. So it seems they set forth almost literally on little more than a wing and a prayer.
American women pilots joined forces with our own ATA and the play centres on the moment this happens. It serves as a springboard to bring out a series of contrasts and challenges as the various characters reveal more about themselves as they adjust to their new colleagues. As well as a beautifully clear introduction to their differing working styles, delivered by the two senior officers to the audience as though we were in a briefing session, more personal issues surface. So we have alcoholism, sexual attraction, cultural difference and class divide all neatly brought to life through genuine and convincing characters going about their unusually intense working lives.
There is a downside to all this, which is that the story feels at times a little unfocussed. It seems for a long time it’s going to be a purely ensemble piece. Clues to any sort of plot are hard to come by. Then we begin to see that British senior officer Phyllis Griggs (Faye Maughan) is fighting several battles. There’s the one with the American senior officer, Jackie Hawkins (Alessandra Perotto), about the best way to lead and discipline their pilots. There’s another battle with her own fear of flying. And finally, the battle for equality with the male pilots of the ATA, who are paid more than the women for doing the same job. This focus is lost a short way into the second act where the pace seemed to slacken a little. At the same time it also delivered some powerfully emotional moments, such as when they all turn to salute the mission board after one of their number is killed.
Alessandra Perotto as American senior officer Jackie Hawkins dominates the stage and provides a wonderfully outspoken contrast to Faye Maughan’s uptight Phyllis. Jackie arrives in a mink coat demanding fresh coffee (to be reminded that there is a war on, you know). Phyllis, meanwhile, is so posh it almost hurts. Even her hair is uptight! In contrast Jackie’s hairstyle is a far more freewheeling affair, depending on what hat she’s wearing and whether she’s just got out of a cockpit!
Faye Maughan’s Phyllis shows great conviction and sincerity. Phyllis is not, on the face of it, a person to warm to. She’s deliberately aloof, partly because she sees it as her duty as leader, partly because she’s clearly not comfortable with letting herself get emotionally close to people. But Maughan carefully shows the humanity within as the play progresses and deftly lets the audience in on what this person is really about. She was particularly affecting during a stilted but powerfully charged phone call with her MP father as she attempts to get him to help her in her mission to get equality for women pilots .
I must also mention the staging. Before the play even started the ceiling was lit blue to suggest the skies the pilots would soon by flying through. I loved seeing the pilot, up in the gallery with a brilliantly simple lighting effect to show they were flying. Added to this the sound effects were spot-on. An air raid had you cowering along with the cast as some huge explosions detonated around the room.
The pilots were played by a young cast and each one managed two things. First, they looked too young to be flying planes in the war – which then reminded us that we did in indeed rely on 19 year old women to do this back then. Secondly they all demonstrated their absolute passion for flying. Not just because they were doing their duty for King and country, but because they just had to fly.
Director Adam Hemming really made great use of what The Space has to offer. This was a wonderul play, both a fascinating history lesson and a powerful evocation of time and place.
[Spoiler alert (although this is a matter of historic record): In a first for the British government, women pilots were awarded equal pay in 1943. Secondly, the American Jackie Hawkins in the play is so inspired by Phyllis she returns to the US to form a US equivalent to the ATA called WASPS (Women Airforce Service Pilots). This really happened and was achieved in fact by Jackie Cochran, who also went on to become the first woman to break the sound barrier.]
Spitfire Sisters is at The Space until Saturday 6 July.