Reviewed By: thisoldcan
Review Date: 4/18/18 3:05 am
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In Dancing with a Spitfire, the second story of Big Finish’s inaugural Big Finish Originals release, Second Officer Mina Lauderdale (Claire Wyatt) is enjoying a fame that she’s never experienced before. She’s one of the best pilots that ATA has, and she knows it; she mugs for the press, goes on wild benders at pubs, and flirts with any man she comes across. But underneath it all, ‘The Wildcard’, as she’s been nicknamed, harbors deep secrets and pains. When a delegation of US pilots, including the outspoken Jeanette (Jess Robinson) arrives to assist ATA, Mina is soon drawn into a friendship with Jeanette that leads to her discovering who she really wants to be and what she really wants to do. Dancing with a Spitfire is a strong, poignant story that, while ending tragically, ends up taking the set in an entirely different direction, emotionally. Leading actors Claire Wyatt and Jess Robinson are positively superb throughout the story; Wyatt gives a forceful, engaging leading performance, while Robinson is quietly powerful in her leading performance, and both actors share a fantastic chemistry with one another. The script, by Big Finish newcomer Victoria Saxton, dives into a powerful story of obligations and expectations, and ends up telling a heartrending, poignant story of the clash between what someone wants and what they have to do. Two stories in, and ATA Girl is quickly cementing itself as one of the best releases Big Finish has ever had, this year and period.
Dancing with a Spitfire features two long-time Big Finish collaborators taking on leading roles. Claire Wyatt stars as Mina Lauderdale, glamorous “It Girl” of ATA, while Jess Robinson stars as Jeanette, an American pilot who comes to help ATA and the war effort. Wyatt’s performance is a strong one throughout the story. On the surface, her character is portrayed as vapid, self-absorbed, and flirtatious; she’s written to be loud and rambunctious, always dancing on tables and flirting up a storm. But while Wyatt ably portrays that, she something quieter to the role that’s just hinted at until the final bits of the story. Her character is meant to be one who’s essentially in a downward spiral, unable to cope with being forced to return to her husband-to-be’s side and her role as a dutiful wife, so she’s showing off for the cameras and having fun while she still can. It’s a heartbreaking revelation, and it throws Wyatt’s performance into the spotlight, as she conveys the pain and sadness in her character’s heart so well. Robinson, by contrast, has a generally subtler performance, though it’s no less engaging. Her character, Jeanette, is someone who is simultaneously haunted and shattered by the death of her brother, but also someone who is trying to channel those emotions as best she can into an internal fire to prove herself and her value to all her naysayers. To meet that, Robinson delivers a slightly detached, awkward performance at times, with hints of rage coming through, such as in her confrontation with Wyatt over her character’s vapid nature. But following that, Robinson’s performance takes on a different tone, as she has her character loosen up a bit, and gets more comfortable with Mina and the other ATA girls. From this comfortability comes romantic feelings, and Robinson does one of the finest jobs I’ve heard portraying the awkwardness and the sadness that goes along with those feelings.
Victoria Saxton, the second of two new writers recruited for the inaugural Big Finish Originals release, continues the box set with a powerful tale of the clash between duty and desire; what’s proper and expected, versus what a person truly wants, despite its abnormality. Saxton grounds this message in a deceptively simple story; that of two women, from very different backgrounds, finding common ground, and building a friendship because of it. The plot is a strong one, and fits into the story very well. I particularly liked the extended scene at the pub, with Mina showing Jeanette the sights of the town, because that extended scene showed a lot of what makes the story great. The arrogant, yet quietly pained performance of Mina, the sadness and awkwardness of Jeanette, mixed with her desperation to hide her feelings for Mina from people, the sliminess of Major Charlie Blackthorn (played by a nigh unrecognizable John Dorney), and more, are all set against this backdrop of the pub and their trip to it. But Saxton saves the most powerful scenes for the ending of the tale. The first of these is the scene where Mina and Jeanette are talking in the spitfire about their lives and what brought them there. This is one of the key scenes of the entire story, as Mina reveals that her life of excess is caused by her frustrations at being forced to go back to her husband to live the life of a dotting housewife, and her desire to keep flying the skies forever. It’s a scene that doesn’t pull its punches, as Mina states that she’s not angry her husband was injured, but that he didn’t die. Saxton crafts a powerful, heartbreaking message of frustration and desire in that scene, but Saxton’s work with those themes aren’t done yet.
The part of the story that stood out to me were the homosexual themes of the tale, and how just utterly brilliantly they were portrayed. In a lot of fiction, homosexual themes between women is very often played for laughs, or as a slightly flirtatious beast. You can see that in Big Finish’s work, with characters like River Song and Bernice Summerfield, being used to make a joke out of their attraction to women. They’re flirtatious, but never explicit, but it’s also just the normal way of things in the future. And that message is okay; in fact, it’s a great message, that sometime in the future, people won’t give a damn about who other people love. But this story upends that, and puts these feelings in a time when these feelings were meant to be forbidden and sinful. But that’s perhaps the greatest strength of this story, because rather than playing it up for laughs or dismissing it as the way things are, Saxton doubles down, and showcases the harrowing nature of these feelings, and gives perhaps one of the most realistic looks at a romantic relationship between two women to date. The story clearly hints at that theme throughout, but they never explicitly say anything until the very end of the story, as Mina and Jeanette kiss, following their near death experience. And what Saxton does is she builds up the tension between the two players, by giving Jeanette a series of defeats; she’s nearly found out at the pub until she kisses her old friend from the States, she’s harassed by Charlie until she’s saved by Mina, and she keeps trying to tell Mina her deep, dark secret, but keeps getting waylaid by various events, like the plane crashing. So in the final moments of the story, when Mina has revealed that she wishes for something more than just being able to go back to her husband, after both Mina and Jeanette have revealed that they want to show the world that they don’t have to follow the norms of society, Jeanette instigates a kiss. It’s a triumph. It’s a fist-in-the-air moment. But then, just as suddenly, it’s not. Mina rejects the advances. Mina says that she can’t do it, because she has too many obligations, and she has no choice in the matter. It’s a powerful note to end the story on; both people clearly want to pursue their relationship with one another, but Mina just can’t bring herself to do it, even if it would mean she gets everything she truly wants, because she can’t have everything she wants in that moment. It’s heartbreaking to hear, and it ends the play on an exceptionally powerful note.
Overall, Dancing with a Spitfire, the second tale of ATA Girl, is a resoundingly powerful tale of the clash between desire and duty. Claire Wyatt and Jess Robinson lead the cast with two exceptional performances; Wyatt for her loud, rambunctious performance as Mina that hides a note of sensitivity and yearning, and Robinson for her subtle, quietly powerful, and emotional performance as Jeanette. Big Finish newcomer Victoria Saxton crafts an impeccable story of the tragedy of a person wanting something with all their heart, but being held back from it by their duties and the judgment of society. The plot, a deceptively simple adventure, masks a beautiful, poignant tale of two women from very different worldviews finding common ground with one another, and something more blossoming out of it. So far, the quality of ATA Girl’s storytelling has been absolutely superb, as both writers so far have created stories that subvert expectations, and instead tell immensely powerful tales of the unsung heroes of ATA.