Sarah Elizabeth Cox is an occasional theatre critic for Stage Review and The Waltham Cat
It took me well over half of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’s 70-minute running time to figure out what makes Rebecca Crookshank’s handful of years in the RAF particularly worthy of a play.
Signing up in her teens, taking on the military tradition of her father and grandfather before her, Crookshank completed training as her friends back home completed their A-levels. It never ceases to amaze, as she points out, that we train kids to be killers before they can even vote.
The story’s undramatic, at first: buddying up with a chirpy Scouse girl, ‘Bec-orating’ her bed space, drinking alcopops to the Spice Girls, getting wooed to The Corrs. Letters home are in that curved childish script we all perfected in the ‘90s. This is no front-line service, Middle East car bombs, limbs lost, planes shot down, PTSD-loaded military play. There’s quite a few of those out there, so there’s novelty here in the mundane, but it’s difficult to get engrossed.
Then the almost throwaway, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it delivery of those first darker moments grabs the attention: the lad found with a gun to his head, the virginity lost to the opportunistic weapons instructor on the gym mats. The unexpected STD.
With great comic effect Crookshank expertly takes on, through a series of accomplished accents and quick costume changes, a number of terrifying and fairly stereotypical Corporals. “When I say ‘attention!’ I expect to hear 25 cunts slapping shut” is a stand-out line and an image that’s unfortunately not leaving me any time soon. And then one of those Corporals chokes to death on her own vomit after a night out. It’s around this point that things get meaty.
Post-breakdown Crookshank’s sent to the Falklands, then a remote island base where, 19-years-old or so, she’s left alone with 28 blokes. We giggled nervously when they flashed their arses in greeting, or ruined her videos with shots of their turds. The video and photographic evidence displayed is funny, until it becomes evidence of what was quite clearly the most appalling sexual abuse. Lad culture. Banter. Just initiating her into the ranks, they’d have said.
Crookshank’s charming, watchable, unpredictable (the hallucination scene with a fairy godmother air commodore was great), but seeing someone skip quickly though their own suicide attempt with what appears to be so little interest was quite a bizarre experience.
To share the most traumatic of these stories takes astonishing bravery and a wholly believable determination to fly far above being a victim. To deliver this story with the level of detachment that Rebecca does is professional and steely, but a little unsettling in its lack of emotion.
Despite being a personal, one woman show, even by the end it felt difficult to know whether we were seeing the real Rebecca Crookshank.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot closes at Ye Olde Rose & Crown on Friday 18 March then relocates to the Tristan Bates Theatre on Monday 4 April.