Handbook of Civilian Defense (What Every Loyal American Can Do To Help The United States Win The War) is a hidden, thrilling Fringe gem brimming with crazy experimental ideas. It is an absolute machine of a show, kept ticking both by its phenomenal cast and the odd contraptions which fill the stage. Verbatim in the truest sense, every word in this piece is taken from a 1942 U.s Government Handbook. And I’ve got to thank them because just the title alone is contributing about 20% of my required word count for this piece.
That’s a joke, of course, because I’m actually very excited by this piece of theatre and have lots I want to say. You enter the room under a shroud of mystery, with sirens blaring in the distance and a stage full of gadgets and ephemera which leave you wondering where on Earth this piece is going to go. There is a camera set up centre stage, pointing down at a series of red tables against a blue shimmery curtain. Screens show the camera footage back to the audience, which is used as a brilliant tool to demonstrate one of the central focuses of this piece – surveillance.
Our five initial performers are marched out on-stage in period 1940s costume, ranging from a country farmer to pinup secretary and a “We Can Do It!” Poster cosplay. They are surveyed instantly by a man in all black with his eyes covered, and it quickly becomes apparent that there is coercion involved in the act which is about to follow. They begin to demonstrate word-for-word from the handbook, with ridiculous over-the-top noises straight out of a cartoon following every announcement of something patriotic. Phrases from the book are repeated, emphasised and muffled to create dramatic effect – we’re soon party to a punchy, inconspicuous satire of the patriotic mindset and the insanity of the language within the piece.
The book is exceptionally nonchalant about the need to protect yourself from potential chemical weapons or an Air Raid, and serves to try and provide calm in a situation in which someone would definitely be panicking. The vibe of the performance so far is one of a sordid infomercial, tangy and crisp, leaving nothing to doubt. It isn’t long, however, before a further performer emerges. It appears he has either been beaten or tortured in some way, as he discharges his lines with a breathy voice, heavy body movement and a dazed expression. His other performers are both alarmed by him and seemingly disgusted.
In my reading, there is either one of two things happening here (but it is very much left up to the audience to decide) – that we are supposed to see this recreant as a distrustful enemy of the state, and that we are in fact in 1942, and that this performance of the handbook is some way of ‘rehabilitating’ or ‘brainwashing’ any turncoats to the state. Potentially also, given the modern equipment on display, we are witnessing something in the present under which the performers are captives being forced to play out this performance in front of the camera again and again, and the man had tried to escape. I think it’s a brilliant plot device which keeps the audience engaged.
The original author of the book, Robert H. Rankin, was the author of several government handbooks and served as a Marine Corps Liaison Officer in the Second World War. The dogged patriotism of the words is matched with a clarity of irony in the production, designed not to completely discard the concept of dying for your country (be that as a civilian or otherwise), but to make you think about the way our society handles panic and emergency. Music is embedded with the piece and is absolutely essential to its success – my personal favourite moment of the piece comes at the end of the piece, where imagery and music become symbiotic and the whole affair becomes a complete nationalism-fest. It’s very fun to witness and gets you thinking.
I only wish we were able to witness the inevitable piercing of the tension which feels like comes after this piece ends – we’re left on absolute tenterhooks and while I can see the narrative value of this, I felt that the whole facetious nature of the piece needed to be punctured and shown for all it’s worth. This is personal taste, however.
Recommended Drink: Get yourself a Bourbon Whiskey, a slice of Apple Pie and get ready to sing Americana for all it’s worth. It’s the 4th of July everyday from here on out.
Handbook of Civilian Defense is a stunningly performed piece of musical drama with a harsh edge that cuts deep into our society’s need to prepare and plan for the worst. Performances have now concluded at EdFringe 2022, but keep up with the company on social media for future showings.