Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a highly personal, autobiographical show – standing somewhere in the middle ground between theatre, comedy and reportage. Alone on the stage, but conjuring a range of characters to illustrate her tale, Rebecca Crookshank tells the story of her younger life: how she came from a military family, joined the Royal Air Force at the age of 17, and quickly built a promising career as a radar controller. Yet she chose to leave the Forces, and she’s an actor now. The difficult story of how she got from there to here is surely the motivation for this challenging show.
At first, Crookshank tells an engaging, if rather predictable story: a gently-comic tale of spit and polish, drill and press-ups, sex and booze. A few of the characters defy expectations – I was genuinely surprised when I realised that one crude-talking, hard-drinking task-master was a woman – but overall, the first three-quarters of the show fall into a comfortable pattern of broadly affectionate reminiscence.
But then, things change. There’s a senseless tragedy, a new posting to a male-dominated outpost, and a shift for the worse in Crookshank’s life. You don’t need to take her word for this, because she has the evidence: video evidence, damningly projected onto the mock-up of a radar screen behind her. One scene, where she’s filming a parody of Treasure Hunt to entertain her family back home, has an especially horrible conclusion – not because of what actually happens, but because it reveals an oppressive and belittling culture, where the most innocuous of activities can take an ugly turn.
WTF, indeed. It’s a shocking exposé, puncturing the treasured myth of British military professionalism – and there’s no denying how important it is that Crookshank’s story be told.
But important subjects don’t automatically make great scripts… and judged solely as a piece of theatre, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has quite a few flaws. It’s structured in a very straightforward chronological way, lacking in suspense, and passing up obvious opportunities to foreshadow those all-important later scenes. To pick a random example, if Crookshank made more of a point of her ambition to fly in a jet fighter, then the way that it finally happens could feel almost Faustian; but as it stands, it’s just a mildly ironic footnote to her tale.
The character performances are a little uneven too, leaning occasionally to hollow stereotype. But one character who unambiguously works is Crookshank’s best friend – who she calls her “wing-woman”, and who seems in many ways her alter ego. While Crookshank stays in Norfolk to man the radars, her “wing-woman” gets to travel the world, yet it’s poignantly clear that even while living that dream her life among men is a lonely one.
In the end Whiskey Tango Foxtrot reveals some very dark places, but doesn’t shine quite enough light to help us explore them. Still, it’s a likeable performance, and an eloquent indictment of military culture. Importantly too, it’s a riposte to those who say – as I admit I sometimes have – that it doesn’t hurt to let boys be boys.