This review was originally written for A Younger Theatre
Per ardua ad astra. Through adversity to the stars. The RAF’s stirring motto could also serve as an epigram to define Rebecca Crookshank’s life, as indeed it is meant to in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Crookshank’s one-woman play about her career in the ranks of the Royal Air Force. As a story, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is an engrossing journey from boot camp to barracks and beyond. As a show, it is a sprightly hour-and-a-bit of bawdy jokes and unabashed honesty, tinged with reflective wistfulness and boasting an adept performance from Crookshank herself.
On a simple set straight out of M.A.S.H., and to a banging soundtrack straight off NOW 39, Crookshanks charts her story with a combination of ingratiating frankness and attention-grabbing verve, switching between a host of idiosyncratic characters as she does so. There is her best mate, ‘Wingwoman’, a chirpy Scouser with an unmistakeable heart of gold. There is a collection of harshly critical female officers, each with a distinct military arrogance and a pronounced regional accent. There is a number of ubiquitous male characters, every one a swaggering, masochistic moron. And there is Crookshank herself, at first a wide-eyed recruit, then a resolute soldier, then an anxious, self-doubting, disenfranchised wreck.
Crookshank observes the mannerisms of her cast with military precision. She seamlessly flicks from brash Aussie to overbearing Scot, to irritated Scouser and back again, aided throughout by some intelligent sound design and a wardrobe of simple but distinctive costumes. At times, she is perhaps too fastidious, too concerned with ticking each character’s boxes to allow any deeper emotion to seep through – but for the most part one can just appreciate her preciseness and versatility.
When I saw Whiskey Tango Foxtrot in Edinburgh last summer, I was impressed with Crookshank’s enthusiasm and vitality. Yet I was disappointed by how her show failed to confront some of the trickier, more topical themes that bubble beneath its surface: the rampant sexism she suffered from, and the frequency with which derogatory homosexual labels were flung about, to name but two. Seven months on, as well as finding an extra dollop of slickness, Crookshank has added a heavier drop of reflection into the mix.
There is still an undisguised pride in the armed forces that will sit uncomfortably with anyone who holds anti-war sympathies, and there are still some downright inflammatory lines – “we aren’t a force for war, we’re a force for peace” – but there is also a hesitancy, a note of regret, that wasn’t present (or that I didn’t pick up on) before. It’s there in her fading smile, lurking beneath her bravado throughout, and it makes space for her more optimistic revelations to truly impact. This is not just a good story. It’s also a perceptive critique of the armed forces’ attitude towards women.