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OTG's autumn 2009 production was The American Pilot directed by Colin Macnee and performed at The North Wall Arts Centre.
Reviews of the show appeared in the Oxford Times, Daily Information and What's On Stage. Blogger Junta Sekimori also had some insightful comments to make.
picture from the performance The American Pilot gets shown the facilities
A gallery of pictures from the production is available to view.

OXFORD TIMES - Nick Utechin

‘Why did you have to come here?” is the underlying question put by a war-exhausted community trying to cope with an unexpected arrival. The American pilot has crashed, is injured and has been brought to apparent safety by the Farmer, a simple man with a thoughtful wife and unusual daughter.

But what is to be done with this alien figure almost literally parachuted into treacherous territory? Suspicion, fear, envy, self-protection and power: so many seething emotions were brought to bear in this clever Oxford Theatre Guild production, directed by Colin Macnee. There is a major communication problem, too, with only two locals speaking even basic English: the creepy Translator (James Silk) and the Farmer’s daughter Evie (beautifully played by Audrina Oakes-Cottrell). John Mansfield as the Pilot is almost immobile throughout this drama, watching and reacting as decisions are made about his future.

The lead decision-maker is the Captain, played with commendable stage presence by Bob Booth. He’s been fighting in “the Valley” for 35 years, wishes (slightly humorously) that he was still in exile in Oslo and hates all Americans. This pilot is going to be killed. A video camera is set up and a pistol drawn.

But there’s a twist in this play, written by David Greig and first produced by the RSC in 2005. In line with the undoubtedly allegorical nature of the piece, the Captain undergoes a conversion at the last minute and is about to devolve his responsibilities to Evie after she speaks of having had a vision.

And then the clatter of helicopter rotors is heard and in a remarkably effective piece of theatricality – especially in the small space that is the North Wall – the Pilot and Evie are hoisted aloft as all the other characters – nice and nasty – are shot.

At this point, the rather fragile subtleties of the play are blown away and one is merely left predictably angry with Americans.

If that was the writer’s intention, then it’s annoying, but he certainly led up to it in clever and thoughtful ways – very well expressed in this OTG show.

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DAILY INFORMATION - Kathryn McNicoll

The Oxford Theatre Guild have taken on a modern, ambitious play to start their autumn season. The American Pilot, first commissioned for and performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2005, tells the story of a small community in which an unexpected and unwanted event occurs which will change it forever. A wounded American pilot is found and given shelter: once there, this accidental representative of a foreign power cannot be pretended away. The setting is not clear but it could be any one of the many countries plagued by internal strife today where a rebel army is fighting a (probably) corrupt government. Nothing is absolute: America is a hated power but its culture pervades the local media; the Captain has been fighting for 35 years but he does not believe they can win and expects to die a miserable death; the Translator believes in blood and revenge but killing or hurting someone makes him vomit.

The male characters are named after their jobs – Farmer, Translator, Captain, Trader – and sometimes that is all we know about them. They are representative rather than real. Evie stands out as someone different, caught between her world and a world of dreams. The ‘locals’ take it in turns to give a short monologue before each scene: in the first half this adds colour and tone to the story, but in the second half these monologues foreshadow events in a deliberately misleading way. Particularly to be recommended is Bob Booth as the world-weary Captain, who has lost the enthusiasm of his youth; Nick Gale, too, is a realistically cynical Trader and Audrina Oakes-Cottrell makes a convincing 16-year-old Evie, whose youthful ardour manages to break through the Captain’s indifference, fill him with an unlikely dream and ultimately bring the play to an unexpected and dramatic end. The set worked very well as a backdrop to events.

The play has some wonderfully lyrical moments, starting with the first monologue, and the foreshadowing technique is highly effective, but sometimes the play fails to deliver its promise and you are left wishing that more could have been said. There are moments of humour (watch out for Daffy Duck!) but more could have been made of the translations; that they could be both amusing as well as dangerous when mistranslated is touched upon, but this is a rich seam that the play does not exploit to the full. Nevertheless, this is a topical, thought-provoking play which is well-worth seeing.

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WHAT'S ON STAGE - Josh Tomalin

The North Wall fulfils a much needed role in the Oxford theatre scene. In a city where large touring shows and the student scene are dominant, it is pleasing that there is a place like The North Wall to showcase new works performed by amateur companies.

It is pleasing to report therefore that The American Pilot is an enjoyable experience from start to finish. A piece of new writing commissioned for the Royal Shakespeare Company a few years ago, it tackles the truly huge subject of America and the perception of America around the world. John Mansfield plays the titular pilot who has crashed in an unnamed country that is going through the death pains of a decades long civil war. His arrival provokes consternation in the inhabitants of the village he ends up in. The Farmer will do anything for a quiet life, the Trader sees the opportunity for profit, the Captain ponders how this arrival can help his cause and the Translator plots bloody violence. Each character represents a different point of view on the presence of America in the world outside America.

It reminded me a lot of the kind of writing that used to be seen at the Royal Court a lot in the late eighties and early nineties: vaguely state-of-the-nation plot, focusing on a few ordinary lives and concluding with a bonkers supernatural / religious twist.

My main problem with the writing is that whilst David Greig has obviously worked painstakingly hard to steer a course between the pillars of pro and anti-Americanism, I think the piece is in fact more anti-American than he thinks it is. The character of the Translator is most problematic for this reason. For example, whilst the Captain and the Farmer are complex and thoughtful characters, the Translator is a much more conventional representation of terroristic attitudes. I was troubled by the amount of sympathy that was indicated this character was due, especially as it came via the hackneyed plot device of him having lost his wife in an American air strike. Secondly, I have been mulling it over since last night and referring to my theatregoing companion and neither of us have any idea what to make of the aforementioned religious twist. I’m still thinking about it.

Having said all that, this non-professional production is agreeably rough around the edges and highly engaging. The cast do their best to keep the action snappy and it succeeds really well in holding the attention when it could have been a preachy yawn-fest. Highlights include the inventive staging in the final scene, Audrina Oakes-Cottrell as Evie and the wonderful Jim Cottrell as the Farmer. The latter gives an absolutely lovely performance as the man stuck in the middle of other people’s plans.

The American Pilot is flawed but highly worthwhile. If you are the sort of person who goes to the theatre in order to endlessly dissect the show afterwards, there isn’t a better production on in town at the moment. Hmmmmm.....

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Junta Sekimori

I attended this for leisure and don’t intend to work on a long and structured review but feel I need to make a brief comment having browsed the local reviews. American Pilot is a play by the prolific David Greig, first performed in 2005, and here reincarnated by the reputable amateur company Oxford Theatre Guild. An American soldier crashes his plane in an unnamed, politically fraught foreign land and, recovering in a remote barn, finds himself at the mercy of a local militia. It’s a play that investigates the meaning of America to the world through the responses of the bemused local community who have candidly deified the superpower for its omnipresence (the farmer smokes Camel and recognises Daffy Duck) and its inaccessibility (they know America mythically through television broadcasts and consumer brands). The pilot, then, is either a son of god or a fallen angel. What do we do with him?

I don’t want to pontificate about the themes as it’s coming up to one o’clock and I want to go to sleep, and really all I wanted to do was congratulate James Silk who plays the part of ‘the translator’, and who has unreasonably been left out of other reviewers’ roll-calls of praise. Perhaps it’s because he plays an overeducated, bookish, and generally unlikeable type? Well, frankly I think it’s an injustice he hasn’t had a mention yet, because his was a particularly intelligent performance that made his character the most believable in the play in spite of the often overreaching lines he has to deal with. And judging from the overarching theme of the play surely his character is the allegorical protagonist? Why hasn’t anyone flagged this guy up?

Separately, one reviewer says that the production is “agreeably rough around the edges.” If by that he means quaint, then this is another injustice. This isn’t a school play, it stands on its own two feet, and doesn’t require a compassionate pat on the back, thank you very much. The set is limited but resourceful, the acting is good to memorable, and the production should be seen, not because it does the local culture a service but because it tells a thought-provoking, multi-layered story tremendously well.

I’m done.

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