Casey Seegar (Keisha Atwell) is informed by the sergeant in charge of the first stage of training for would-be military aviators, Emil Foley (Ray Shell), that she is to be the first woman in United States military history to be granted the opportunity to fly military aircraft. Historically speaking, this assertion is dubious – the show is set in 1982, while the female US Air Force officers started graduated in 1977, the regulations on women not being allowed to fly being relaxed in 1976. Both the Army and the Navy beat the Air Force to it, changing their policies in 1974 (see note 1). There are also examples of women flying for the US military during World War Two.
But then, historical accuracy went out the window as early as ‘Hearts On Fire’, the fourth song into the show, released in 1985 as part of the ‘Rocky IV’ soundtrack album, three years after the storyline is set. ‘Material Girl’, made famous by Madonna, didn’t hit the music charts until 1984 (and not as a single until January 1985), and while I am thrilled that Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’ has now entered the canon of musical theatre, their album ‘Slippery When Wet’ wasn’t released until August 1986.
Marks down, then, not having songs that wouldn’t have been known to the characters in the show, and marks down for not having at least one original song written for the musical (see note 2). It surely couldn’t be that difficult to find pre-1982 material. Whilst I’m a bit of a roll, marks down for projections that don’t quite work out. There’s a scene where trainees are plunged into a pool, simulating escaping from a downed aircraft underwater, even if Foley points out the simulation is ‘Disneyland’ compared to the real thing. Sid Worley (Ian McIntosh) is unable to escape unassisted (see note 3). But after his classmates have pulled him out of the water and are bringing him around, the projections suggest he’s still drowning. Hashtag fail.
There’s an awareness, it would seem, that the storyline, while heightening one’s emotions quite suitably, doesn’t quite fit with current gender socio-political trends: here comes Zack Mayo (Jonny Fines), a relatively modern-day equivalent of a knight in shining armour, having passed the training course at Aviation Officer Candidate School, whisking Paula Pokrifki (Emma Williams) away because a lady is unfulfilled without a man.
The feminists might be rather riled by this, but the LGBT+ lobby may have yet more justification in having reservations, what with the ‘jokes’ regarding “queers”. It’s a story of its time, and while a generation ago the likes of Lynette Pomeroy (Jessica Daley) might have been criticised for knowing what she wants and not settling for what is on offer, there’s nothing wrong with her sense of clarity in wanting to travel the world as an aviator’s wife. There’s a solution, of course, in the form of Seegar: Pomeroy could just train to fly military aircraft herself.
At least the songs are recognisable, even for those like me, whose knowledge of chart music borders on non-existent. When the projections do work properly, they add to the show’s atmosphere – an image of the waves of the sea leaves little to the imagination in its portrayal of a beachfront view, for instance, and there are several flashbacks during proceedings. I’m generally not an emotional person (and no, I’m not angrily hammering my fingers down on the keyboard as I type this), but I’ll admit to shedding a tear or two of joy at the show’s finale.
The stand out performances are from McIntosh as Worley, whose initial macho nature is eventually broken by Foley’s training regime – deliberately set up to sort those who are prepared to face the challenges of military life from, well, those who aren’t – and Williams in the lead role of Pokrifki. The former’s vulnerability is palpable in his rendering of ‘Family Man’, even if the song doesn’t really fit the narrative, and the latter has a lively zeal and a gorgeous singing voice, which is given several chances to shine during the show.
Somebody somewhere has a quirky sense of humour, having Sergeant Foley almost bark Europe’s ‘The Final Countdown’ at the trainees as the final exercises prior to graduation are carried out. The nine-piece band, under the direction of Michael Riley, are flawless throughout. This triumph over adversity tale is far from perfect overall, but what it lacks in form and content it more than makes up for with heart, and with a cast committed to their roles. And when a Yorkshire audience rises to its feet at the curtain call, it’s a standing ovation well deserved. As a fellow theatregoer said to me as we were filing out of the theatre, “I enjoyed that. Aye, it’s a good ‘un.”
1 We all know it’s ‘The Army, the Navy and the Air Force’, to quote the 1938 song of that title. I only figured out which one this show was all about during an early ensemble number, ‘In The Navy Now’. There’s so much talk of flying and ‘getting jets’ (that is, flying) that the show might as well have been about the Air Force. The Royal Navy and Royal Marines have aircraft, while the British Army have a range of helicopters, so even in the UK it is entirely possible to be a military pilot whilst not actually being in the RAF.
2 The show can’t seem to win on this point. Its original run in Sydney, Australia, in 2012, lasted six weeks, and that had an original score. But it was panned by Australian critics, to the point where Douglas Day Stewart, the screenwriter for the film (and co-writer, with Sharleen Cooper Cohen, of the book for the musical), felt it necessary to issue a rebuttal of the negative reviews, published in ‘The Australian’.
3 Yes, I’m quite aware it was Topper Daniels in the film who almost drowned in the dunker exercise. But there’s no Topper Daniels in the stage show. There’s also no Lionel Perryman, and if you are still not convinced this stage adaptation isn’t a blow-by-blow reconstruction of the motion picture, there’s no ‘Young Zack’ either, and no martial arts show-off scene, so when Foley and ‘Mayonnaise’ come to blows, it’s a sort-of bare knuckle boxing round.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.