Chain smoker and chaplain, poet and padre, furnisher of faith and fags, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy dispensed Woodbines and the word of God on the Western Front during the First World War. On the centenary of the outbreak of that war Searchlight Theatre Company pays homage to his memory in this beautifully scripted play by David Robinson, who also plays the eponymous hero.
This play of overwhelming sincerity and honesty is a moving and heart-warming tribute to Woodbine Willie.
An elegant teapot with cup and saucer is safely tucked under the sandbags that form the trenches. They are a little piece of England secured in this foreign land that bring comfort and refreshment. Close by are the communion vessels, further reminders of the peace of parish life back home that Kennedy chose to leave. Here, however, the men in uniform and the chilling sound effects of rifles, explosions and canon fire leave us in no doubt that this parish is at war.
David Robinson is a consummate storyteller in both his writing and his acting. He has seamlessly integrated biography, wartime songs, hymns and poems into a story rooted in the experiences of men who had first-hand experience of Kennedy. Robinson’s mellow northern voice is full of warmth and understanding for the two soldiers fearfully awaiting the command to go over the top. Michael Taylor and Oliver Ward perfectly complement each other in their fine performances, providing scenes of sadness and joy, bitterness and hope. Their characters are ordinary, down-to earth men in exceptional circumstances who reveal themselves and their backgrounds as the story progresses.
In 1917 Studdert Kennedy was awarded the Military Cross “for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He showed the greatest courage and disregard for his own safety in attending to the wounded under heavy fire … and his cheerfulness and endurance had a splendid effect upon all ranks in the front line trenches, which he constantly visited.” This play of overwhelming sincerity and honesty is a moving and heart-warming tribute to Woodbine Willie.