Bomb Happy isn't just another play about war; it is a treasure trove of priceless primary source material for the ages.
In 2016 writer and director Helena Fox began a series of meetings with the last five remaining York Normandy Veterans. Ken "Smudger" Smith, Albert "Bert" Barritt and Ken "Cookey" Cooke have lived to see the final work; it is a great sadness to all involved that George "Merry" Meredith and Dennis "Hank" Haydock passed away before their words came to performance. This play relates a small part of their lives that forever remained with them and serves as a reminder of how little time is left to hear first hand the words of those who entered into the fray for freedom. In so doing Bomb Happy isn't just another play about war; it is a treasure trove of priceless primary source material for the ages.
Traditionally a verbatim piece would be performed by actors of similar ages to the contributors. Yet instead of five octogenarians, or older, occupying the stage, Helena Fox decided to cast an ad hoc group of young and relatively inexperienced actors much nearer to the age of the soldiers when they went to battle. When listening to the veterans she noticed that as they moved more deeply into their stories they would change from the past to the present tense. Emotionally and mentally they returned to the battle field and eventually they were relating what took place as though in that very moment. This gave her the idea to put the words into youthful mouths. What we see on stage are not worldly-wise old men reminiscing about the past but boys shipped to an unknown land being confronted with the carnage of the battlefield. This inspired device heightens the already vivid language and provides a powerful sense of immediacy and involvement.
The five monologues into which the material has been formed are carefully interwoven to create sequenced scenes. The soldiers relate their stories in step with each other from the high spirits of conscription or volunteering through the creeping onset of reality, realising that the beaches and trenches afford none of the security of the training camp, to the chilling conflicts and injury and the eventual return home, in some cases several years after the armistice had been signed. At no point do they enter into dialogue, which serves to suggest the loneliness and isolation each must have felt having been bundled away from his country, friends and family for the first time and transported to a world of unimaginable horror. In contrast the common themes and feelings within their stories and having all the cast onstage throughout, reveal the intense fellowship and camaraderie that also existed during those dreadful years. The work as whole is framed by a prologue and epilogue of composite words from several wives of soldiers, giving it a neat structure. Beryl Nairn takes these words and gives an insight into life with a veteran living with memories of the war.
In such an ensemble piece it would be invidious to highlight any one actor. Each humbly accepts the challenge of bringing to life his veteran's words and of doing justice to his valour. Each becomes an intriguing individual with his own story and characteristic demeanour, voice and, very importantly in such a dark setting, sense of humour. George Stagnell, Thomas Lillywhite, Carl Wylie have only a few years more stage experience than Joe Sample and Adam Bruce who make their professional debuts in Bomb Happy, but they all perform with maturity, dignity and sensitivity.
This sympathetic play has had a highly successful run in multiple venues around Yorkshire, from where it originated at Helmsley Arts Centre, yet it deserves a much wider audience. It is the stuff for theatre-in-education projects, from which English, drama and history departments could make invaluable use. It would be heartwarming for veterans around the country and quite simply a joy for all theatre-goers. It is a lasting legacy to those five men whose words made it possible and triumphant tribute to the many who gave their lives in liberating Europe.