The Winston Machine by Kandinsky – New Diorama Theatre, London
On a spare, skewed platform a man (Nathaniel Christian) in RAF uniform and and a woman in a 1940s dress (Becky, played by Rachel-Leah Hosker) are enacting a goodbye in stilted, Brief Encounter tones. He’s off to war, naturally, but she doesn’t seem to want to play the role he expects. And she is wearing a leather jacket that is surely too modern for the era. Then, mid-sentence, we are in the present day and Becky is trying to avoid committing to buying a house with her boyfriend (played by Hamish McDougall), apparently distracted by her phone. She speaks news alerts and social media messages out loud as they interrupt her thoughts and conversation.
The Winston Machine is a typically inventive piece devised by Kandinsky theatre company, directed by James Yeatman with dramaturgy from Lauren Mooney. Their collaboration is key to the show’s energy, which is often captivating, sliding boldly between eras mid-sentence and flattening timelines into a single feed, in a way that feels genuinely innovative. This approach is a logical way to approach an exploration of the mythologies of the past – in the form of the wartime experiences of Becky’s grandparents – and its place in the present, where it haunts Becky’s imagination and that of the organisers of a 1940s themed festival where she is booked to sing. Hosker’s voice is at the centre of the evening, as she sings songs of the time confidently, and beautifully. The performers are very adept at bringing a complex show to life, and Nathaniel Christian’s is impressive in what is apparently his professional debut.
Christian morphs from Becky’s grandfather, a complicated character rather than the hero some would like to imagine him, into an old school friend, Lewis, now a successful musician. Becky and Lewis are drawn to one another, and may have a future that looks different to her grandparent’s existence and that of her uptight father, scarred by proxy. However, the focus starts to dissipate towards the end of the play, as it becomes apparent there’s no real ending. The themes of the evening are potent – the dangers of Second World War fantasy nostalgia (given a new lease of life through Brexit), the blurring of past and present online, the things that connect us (music, shared understanding) and what to do with your knowledge of the past. It doesn’t entirely work, but The Winston Machine opens up fascinating questions even if it cannot resolve them. Kandinsky have a fearless performance energy that means their work should be taken seriously, and may well realign your perceptions before you realise what is going on.