It is a simple enough story. The act must have been replayed thousands of times across Britain in the initial rush to have been called up and take the King’s shilling, and again, after the horrors of the trenches had been made all too apparent, in the dreaded conscription of men to come to the aid of King and country.
The play is based on the well-known novel by Michael Morpurgo. It opens with three brothers, who grew up together, in a close-knit family. On one level, it is a love traingle – the central characters Tommo and Charlie both fall for the same childhood sweetheart, Molly, with Charlie acting as a go-between for their letters. Their poor but happy life is threatened, when Molly falls pregnant by Charlie. The families’ very livelihood is at stake, as they are farm workers in tied accommodation, and their landlord, traditionalist, and middle-class, seeks revenge for them having a child outside wedlock, and daring to poach on his estate.
But with the outbreak of war, the same landlord is recast as a Colonel, who abuses his power over the two brothers, so that the class conflict played out in their village is carried over to the horrors of Ypres, or as it was colloquially known, ‘Wipers’.
The play ends with a powerful and emotional tribute to all those who resisted war – who were shot or made to stand on cannon wheels, because of their ‘cowardice’. Morpurgo’s book was instrumental in obtaining a pardon for these brave individuals, though this came 90 years too late. The play is a thoughtful exploration of the human tensions, emotions and the brutality of war, with some echoes, for me, of Kubrick’s unflinching anti-war film “Full Metal Jacket”.
The performance took place in a converted theatre above the Organ Grinder pub in Loughborough, with a traverse stage on the same level with the audience and an intimate setting, so the audience was in the thick of the action. An emotive score accompanied the very physical realism of some of the scenes. Multiple characters were played by each cast member – which added to the complexity of the play. Yet this was pulled off very effectively, with strong performances all round from the cast. The characters were well-rounded and believable, which made for an emotional and inspiring evening.
Tony Church discusses the staging and performance here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dB16fzqt9GU
Directed by Peter Tillotson
Cast: Kevin Biddlecombe, Tony Church, Lucy Johnson, Jennifer Tillotson, James Williams.