Wagstaff – review

It is not often that you would expect to find contemporary issues addressed in a play loosely based around the Second World War, but in Wagstaff, Oliver Michell’s new one act offering, there are lurking criticisms of Britain’s colonial aggression, which might as easily be applied to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as any other military conflict of the past century.

Gwen Hanauer’s direction ensured a vibrant performance, full of tense exchanges and the odd comic flourish, whilst the pacing was finely measured, allowing the audience’s interest to sustain for the duration of the play.

Set in a hostile and claustrophobic desert environment, Wagstaff explores the psychology of an embittered, egotistical and injured soldier, whom the play is named after, determined to withhold his potentially lifesaving landmine maps in an attempt to gain revenge over the military he believes have betrayed him.

Perhaps, though, this does not quite do justice to the complexities of Wagstaff’s character. He is, in turn, charming, cocky, selfish, vulnerable and witty; an entertaining mix, handled deftly by Jonathon Moss, whose energetic delivery masked the niggling weaknesses in the script which might have threatened an otherwise fluid performance.

The only exception to this rule came in the form of the injury sustained to Moss’s character in the opening minutes. Any act of graphic violence, as we see when Wagstaff steps on a landmine, brings with it a risk of exaggerated delivery, evident here in the protracted and bizarrely monotone screaming, which was unnecessarily awkward.

From this point on, however, the performance achieved a more desirable balance between a sense of immediate physical agony and the need for considered moral conversation, helped immeasurably by the introduction of Milli Bee as Ratnasingham.

Of the three characters we are introduced to, Bee’s was by far the most interesting; an involving, morally dubious figure, whose choices are among the most challenging of those presented to us. Her initial betrayal, and subsequent rescue, of Wagstaff, highlights the attention paid by Michell to the intriguing nature of deferred responsibility in military hierarchy, as she is asked to abandon a soldier whom she knows will die without her help.

These orders are given by her and Wagstaff’s superior, Baverstock, who, for his involvement in such a delicate dilemma, is disappointingly two-dimensional. Through no fault of the actor in question, Chris White, the lines delivered often felt a touch predictable, as he served the sole purpose of barking instructions and insisting upon their execution.

To an extent this is compensated for in the scenes with Wagstaff himself, as Baverstock’s charmless approach is ridiculed to great effect, but in most contexts it simply feels reflective of a lack of depth in his character.

In all, though, the energy, tension and intrigue which are present throughout the play mark Wagstaff out to be hugely successful presentation of wartime psychology and morality. These nuanced performances, alongside Hanauer’s precise, playful direction, ensured that our considerations for individuals within a collective remain as relevant as they have ever been.


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January 2022
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