This expansive 90-minute play is founded on a fascinating genuine historical fact. In 1942, as war raged on the Eastern Front, the Soviet Union formed an unusual bomber squadron: unusual, because it contained no men. With its female pilots, navigators and commanders, it’s an intriguing embodiment of the Marxist principle of equality, and the briefest of studies on the Internet reveals some compelling personal stories too. The Night Witches is a fictionalised account of one pilot’s life – tracing her family upbringing in rural Ukraine, her heroism in the war, and ultimately her Kafkaesque trial at the hands of the very nation she’d served.
So there’s a lot of potential here. But strangely, for a play performed by Texas Woman's University and featuring a mainly female cast, it does little to tackle the questions of gender which it seems so primed to explore. The characters who present themselves for roll-call are a procession of crass stereotypes: the cosseted ballerina, the diva who won’t cut her hair, the unhappy over-eater, the sex fiend who’s just in it for the men. I realise this is meant to be humorous, but isn't it a little questionable, all the same? And their transition to the male-dominated world of the air force is equally unsubtle: once they're fully-fledged pilots, we find them swilling litres of vodka and vomiting into each other's flight gear.
The script also suffers from a tendency to blurt out plot points – the fact one character was raped as a child is revealed with especially gratuitous haste – and the conclusion seems to turn on an astonishing coincidental meeting, completely unheralded by anything that's gone before. I can't help wondering if there's been a clumsy edit here, since a few additional intervening scenes might do a lot to establish a credible plot arc.
Yet the large cast perform with admirable commitment and professionalism, with very few stumbles even on their opening night in Brighton. There are some nicely stylish scenes – particularly the flight sequences – and a couple of moments when they succeed in forming a real connection with their audience, such as their rousing rendition of the Internationale. But many of the set-pieces feel too much like drama-class exercises, rather than serving a genuine theatrical purpose. Just because you can evoke a crowded street, doesn't mean it's necessarily right to.
The young performers do all have solid skills, and I've no doubt they'll find success if they choose to continue with their acting careers into the future. If there's one specific area I'd suggest they focus on, it's their repertoire of accents. They perform the Soviet characters using their natural voices – which is fair enough – but their forays into German need quite a bit of work.
All in all, The Night Witches feels a missed opportunity, especially in light of playwright Steven Young’s impressive previous work. It needs a tighter plot, with much more focus on what’s really interesting about this particular historical tale. That's no discredit to the cast though – chocks away, here’s hoping their own theatrical ambitions will soon be taking flight.