(a few spoilers, by the way)
William Ivory’s Bomber’s Moon discusses memory and mortality – with the foul-mouthed World War Two veteran Jimmy (James Bolam) being haunted about his days in Bomber Command, and raging that ‘no-one deserves’ to become old and weak’ – but also the need for social engagement with others as a means of overcoming one’s fears and regrets; David (Steve John Shepherd) is introduced as a painfully by-the-book care worker (‘that’s very interesting, would you like to talk about it?’) but his own personal problems eventually become key to Jimmy overcoming his own.
The portrayal of religion is important in showing the human dependency on each other. David is a recently-converted Catholic but his faith is shaken by the end of the play; he argues that ‘despair is my natural state’. His conversion only happened once his father died, suggesting an attempt to replace a relationship with a relative with a relationship with God, showing interaction with others to be crucial to human happiness. This is also seen in his arrest after he assaults his ex-wife’s lover, suggesting outright violence can come from isolation; the fact that his anger is uncharacteristic – by his own admission he ‘never drinks [alcohol]’ – could also show how our identities are corrupted if we don’t have anyone to share them with.
This is painfully reflected in Jimmy, whose isolation in a care home’s single room shows both a physical and social exclusion from others; furthermore, everyone he names in the play – his former carer Ezekiel, his neighbour Margaret and his old bombing team – is either absent or dead. Also, the one personal item in the room is a small postcard by the door, one dwarfed by a no-smoking sign and a fire protocol sheet, suggesting a loss of identity, and the imposition of abstract and generic rules, as a result of isolation.
Jimmy himself takes this isolation to extreme extents, using brutally explicit language – ‘you could cut glass with my cock’ – to distance himself from David, and opposing his carer’s attempts to take him for a walk around his room; Jimmy eventually yields, and finds enjoyment from dancing – an inherently communal activity – with David, suggesting that personal engagement can make even the mundane enjoyable.
Appropriately, Ivory presents love to be the most important and enjoyable of human emotions, with Jimmy first reminiscing about, then openly declaring his love for, his old squadmate Frank; Frank is also played by Shepherd, in both Jimmy’s flashbacks and his mind, uniting the characters of Frank and David – ‘you’re like him’, Jimmy tells the latter. But these characters are similar beyond their Catholicism and friendship with Jimmy; they both give Jimmy happiness: Frank as a friend and lover, David as a friend and carer.
This could also show how our relationships with others are direct means to an end of self-improvement, although not in a selfish, exploitary sense. The only constant of the performance is Jimmy, with the three kinds of scene – Jimmy’s interaction with David, Jimmy’s nightmares of flying, and Jimmy’s flashbacks to his time with Frank – all involving Bolam as Jimmy, meaning that his nights out with Frank are played by a young man in Shepherd, and a man twice his age in Bolam. As a result, all of the ‘young’ Jimmy’s happiness with Frank carries over into the ‘old’ Jimmy that David knows; perhaps this is why Jimmy has the strength to comfort and guide David in his pain at the end of the play.
But religion isn’t totally undermined in Bomber’s Moon; David may lose his faith in God, but one of Jimmy’s final actions is to give him Frank’s old rosary beads, giving some hope to David. The fact that Jimmy himself is a staunch atheist (his opening line is to unite and dismiss all religions as being ‘all the same’) means these beads have little religious power, but they have great personal power; David finds hope not in God, but in the kindness of Jimmy. Therefore, perhaps religion is simply a means to an end of happiness, rather than an ultimate happiness to strive for and devote one’s life to; after all, it is David’s newfound faith that inspires him to become a carer and meet Jimmy in the first place.
However, the ideas of the play are difficult to accept in places; The Guardian’s review of the piece is titled ‘observant realism fades to dodgy metaphysics’, and it is certainly true that the initial extreme, even comical, aggression of Jimmy and David’s naive sterility makes their shift to dependence on and honesty with each other a bit of a stretch given the under two-hour run time.
Also, the play is perhaps too explicit in places; the soft-spoken David’s outburst at admitting his split with his wife is perhaps too violent – his one rant is louder and angrier than any of Jimmy’s many – shifting the emphasis of the speech away from his desire for companionship, and towards a more basic bitterness at losing his wife. The final scene, in which the present-day Jimmy dances with Frank, presumably in the former’s dreams, equally showed the joy and peace of mind of social acceptance too clearly; for me, the fact that Jimmy was able to be open and honest with David was enough to show how one’s identity can emerge as a result of interaction. This scene also emphasised Jimmy’s relationship with Frank – one that can only exist in his mind – over his more tangible and mutual friendship with David.
But Bomber’s Moon was thoroughly enjoyable, offering comedy in its early stages, touchingly honest weakness towards the end and joy at its conclusion; the acting was great, and the clever use of darkness and garbled radio transmissions from the technical team to reinforce Jimmy’s fears, and genuinely scare the audience at one point, was awesome. I’m not gonna give it a numerical rating, because I think that kinds sucks, but I will say Bomber’s Moon is definitely worth seeing.