Set in 1940s America, Batson’s “How To Sell A War” follows the true story of the US Office of War Information, and their contributions of scandal and propaganda to the country’s war effort. The plot follows the lives of six war propagandists, exploring the various obstacles which had to be overcome during this period of difficulty, including several police break-ins, inter-office espionage and disputes with the French Resistance.
The set design of this production was practically faultless, with great attention to detail evidenced by the sourcing of many vintage props, such as the corded phone and typewriter, which enhanced the nostalgic atmosphere of the piece. This was, however, unfortunately let down by the practical implications of having so many props on-stage, which caused actress Cassandra Cassidy to trip on more than one occasion, upon accessing her desk. Danya Bradley Barnes’ spared no expense with the weaponry on set, which proved highly effective during the break-in scenes that often involved the smashing of bottles, adding to the vibrance of production. With regards to costume, Alison Maclean ensured an impressively high standard of attire, notably vis-à-vis Cassidy’s “Rosie the Riveter” ensemble, which complemented the meta-theatrical assessment of the “We Can Do It!” war poster upon stage. Though, this was undermined by the outfit of Thomas Jaffray, whose suit seemed a touch too modern in comparison to the costumes of other characters.
The special effects of this production were almost flawless, with the intermittent use of projector footage providing an informative, and often humorous, effect between scene changes, albeit if slightly over-used. Credit must also be given to the expressive use of stage lighting, which added colour to Cassidy’s interchanging impressions of Hitler and Goebbels. The sound effects were also spot on, from the timing of slapstick noises to Edward Meltzer’s noteworthy pianist rendition of “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition”. The finishing touch of confetti flyers really took the production above and beyond the expectations of student theatre, evidencing a talented creative vision, of which the production team should be proud.
On the whole, this play was well cast, with good imitations of the American accent, notably by Domi Ucar, that held up well against the native speakers on stage. There was, however, a danger of over-acting at certain points, for instance with the throwing of scrunched paper at the projector, and an over-attentiveness to the lines of other characters, which made Act I seem slightly pre-empted and over-rehearsed as a result. Whilst this is not usually a problem in productions such as pantomimes, it was often unclear whether or not the actors intended to break the fourth wall, at points laughing with the audience at the humour on stage, which left a shadow of doubt over whether they were slipping out of character. The strongest character voice came from Caleb Ws, and most animated expressions from Harriet Newcombe, although the former suffered from a lack of conviction in his stage presence, and the latter would benefit from a variation of tone. Johnny Ross-Tatum commanded the best stage presence, delivering his lines in a suave, yet convincing fashion, which was well complemented by Newcombe during their stage interactions. Though overall, the best performance was undoubtedly delivered by Lewis McDonald, who gave a highly convincing rendition of the “first-day guy” persona. McDonald’s ability to stir both pity and respect from the audience, as well as garner the most laughs, evidences high calibre of showmanship; let his ability to writhe around a table with tied hands and feet, without knocking over a single prop.
Value for money-wise, at £6 a ticket this production was more on the expensive side of student theatre, though understandable given the high quality of set design. Time-wise, at just over 2 hours, this play may have benefitted from a cut or two, potentially during the very effective, but over-used, projector scenes in the first act.
Compliments to Director Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller and Stage Manager Brodie Smith for their cameo appearances, exhibiting both a versatility and hands on approach in their awareness of production and performance.