It is difficult to write about the performance we witnessed without being wholly effusive with praise. It was presented for one night only as part of HASTINGS THEATRE FESTIVAL PRESENTATION.
David William Bryan not only wrote this play but performs it as a solo piece of work. It has very personal connections as the man and soldier he brings to life is his great uncle Arthur, known as Joe in the family as being a large family all the children had abbreviated or altered names. This was so ingrained and accepted that when he is missing in World War 2, enquiries prove fruitless as they are sent under 'Joe' and not Arthur.
The play first appeared at the Edinburgh Festival in 2018 and has toured since that time and indeed returns to Edinburgh this year and deservedly so.
It is a brave actor who not only has faith in his own composition but can go out on a stage alone for 75 unforgettable minutes, no scenery, no projections just his own talent, physicality and self discipline. He hits the stage running literally , being chased for stealing a loaf of bread. We are in Liverpool as the War is 'in full swing' and despite the modern armaments being manufactured in the fight for survival against the Third Reich he regales us with the cobbled streets and the ingrained grime of horse muck.
Immediately the audience was engaged and involved with this 'cheeky chappie' and personable man in his Liverpool accent (but clear diction) he begins to tell his story and plays all the other characters with polished ease. David never overplays each change of persona and they are swiftly and deftly handled. We hear about the crammed conditions, the obsession and pride in well scrubbed front steps amongst war time deprivation. Joe is a packer for the war effort and has not yet volunteered . The fight against the grime with only a tin bath and no privacy is mixed with humour and pranks.
Every man seeing this could relate to Joe attending a local dance with a real dance band, already an unrequited love for local girl. Mary. In a borrowed suit, too large for him, he craves the opportunity to dance. He is fearful of not being able to dance and then his best pal, Frank, and work mate steps in and they all speak, even with a swig of 'Dutch courage' from his mates hip flask, the conversation is awkward and he feigns a bad back and misses his opportunity, he plucks up the courage to move and a bomb hits. All through this play excellent sound effects and very loud explosions were superbly timed by David's assistant whom he credited at the end. I regret I do not recall his name.
A week of bombing ensues and the terror, devastation and death toll rises including the death of Frank's family in a raid. This hardens his resolve and he enlists and has to face telling the family. There is a 'telling' moment in the difference between his mother's physical embrace and a man to man nod between him and his father which conveys so much. He wants to see Mary before he leaves for the army, but ultimately she is not at home when he calls.
Like so many men, the forces are a whole new world and because it is wartime and not men joining as a career choice, he meets and makes friends with men of all backgrounds. David's vocal skills are so attuned that we 'meet' some of them and he makes them real as we watch and listen. Joe has only crossed the River Mersey and like most people did not travel far. Now after training he embarks on a troop ship to Canada and on to South Africa in those days of the British Empire and thereby is not involved with war in Europe but another monumental war in the far east is on the horizon of history as the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbour and the USA declares war. They move to India for more training and recreation. He catches a duck and supplements the rations with the meat. Joe thinks of home so very far away. He dreams of a job and marriage .None of these things will ever happen but he needs the hope to fuel the spirit and will to survive. The regiment is re deployed to Singapore and the convoy is attacked , in detail we hear of the terrible predicament of being on a ship under attack his survival is miraculous but maybe he might have been better off if he had met his demise but a comrade, George helps him, saves him from drowning. His life and of course this was the fate of thousands went from bad to worse from the terror of war to a true 'living hell'. Singapore falls and the British surrender. Joe is ordered to join the Infantry from his initial unit in the Loyal Regiment. He and the infantry meet the Japanese , the carnage is horrific, it is kill or be killed, that is the only option. In this we see the transformation from the affable Joe to a soldier bayonetting another mother's son. There is a graphic description of Japanese soldiers throwing themselves onto the barbed wire to allow soldiers to cross on their backs. We can never know what body chemistry or sheer focus mitigates the pain.
Ultimately they are captured and force marched, sticks being used to drive them on. What inner strength kept them going? Burnt from the sun, dehydrated and when reaching camp a handful of rice is inedible as it has maggots in it. Joe witnesses the mass execution of Chinese prisoners, we do not know why they are not spared, maybe the ancient enmity or the legacy of the Sino/Japanese wars plays a part in this military genocide. It is all the more remarkable since labour is needed. A bullet on the beach would have been a mercy instead of the fate that awaits him and the men who have survived. Transported in rail trucks to Thailand for days on end with men suffering the cruellest deprivation, malaria and dysentery rife to become slave labourers building the infamous railway. If you falter and can no longer work you are shot. Maybe the fear of death drives them on? If you do not work hard enough you are punished even though every waking moment is horrendous, the oblivion of sleep from sheer exhaustion, a mere respite but what nightmares are pervading that sleep? The ingenuity of the men with remembered skills helps them to help each other, rank and class mean nothing here at the sick camp he is sent to but some are simply shot instead. He is not sent back and from memory it was almost 2 years later he remains in the camp.
Joe's fate is not known, maybe that is worse not knowing. His mother writes letters and as earlier uses the wrong name.
Germany surrenders but the 'forgotten' war in the far east rages on. I have heard before that the euphoria on VE Day was resented by those waiting for news and victory in the east. However, it would come when America dropped the atomic bombs, lucky were those killed instantly.
The Japanese simply abandon them and they are free. Recuperation begins, a comrade has a leg amputated. They do not have the modern medicine and facilities we now largely take for granted and with the post conflict turmoil and infrastructure decimated or destroyed and a new order underway, just to be alive was a miracle in itself.
Eventually Joe returns on the long sea voyage but medical care, nutrition and the sea air is no longer enough to effect a full recovery for TB is killing him slowly, he has been through too much. Arriving home he sees a little boy laughing and he thinks it was all worth it. life goes on, he sees his parents again and one can only imagine their mixed feelings, joy tinged with tears to see a 'reduced ' man who has fought for the freedom. Mary has married in his absence.
In closing, I fear my words will not be enough to do justice to the extraordinary performance witnessed last night. Initially a 70/75 minute performance would leave a feeling of being short changed. I hope this play is never paired with another piece of work for it stands alone, you do not need the evening to be 'filled out' for your entertainment. Joe dies before our eyes, he fades with the light. Earlier with a sweep of his hand the light changed. Such is the thought that has gone into this production. There was silence in the auditorium as David returned and the last post played as he saluted and then one by one and then more and more we stood and the ovation was wholly justified, we applauded on an on until he called a halt. Normally I am rather averse to curtain speeches but this was presented charmingly and rather unassumingly and ensured that no one left without being aware that Joe was his great uncle. It was a remarkable performance of a fine piece of writing and should be filmed and shown to a wider audience. It is always a joy to see a consummate talent bring a work to life, the physical fitness and stamina required is astounding. David moves with self choreographed grace, every character he portrays wholly believable in the moment. At one stage stripped to the waist and soaked in sweat then redressing, he never leaves the stage for water but sustains his voice throughout and that is also an achievement with all the movement and voice range required. At the end he leaves for the foyer and expressed the wish to thank all of us! The gratitude was ours collectively and individually. David said that he had never been to Hastings before, Well that should be come habitual visits and I for one hope that the Stables will book this production and his new one in the future or Peter Mould will for the Barn Theatre at Smallhythe. Standing ovations were once earned and now seem common place. I stood and had to stop my eyes from watering at the slumped dead figure of Joe. In writing this today the tears have come. I am sure I speak, on this occasion, for everyone last night in saluting a genuinely talented and fine actor and writer, David William Bryan.