As I travelled to the Junction theatre in Goole with a friend, I had a great deal of trepidation about seeing the play Bomb Happy. Written by Helena Fox, it is based on the experiences of a number of Second World War veterans from York. But not just any veterans, a group of men who have been part of my life for a decade, and with whom I have travelled across North West Europe, seeing the places where the shadows of them as young men fought to rid Europe of fascism. I’ve shared laugher and tears with them, witnessed too many pass away, and I’ve been honoured and privileged to have them call me a friend. How would this play depict men I actually know?
Bomb Happy starts with the character ‘Queenie’, played superbly by Beryl Nairn. Talking about her husband, Queenie reflects on the effect memory and remembrance had on her husband, a Normandy veteran. For women like her, it was tough to have a partner whose mind wandered to places she could never know, and sometimes struggled to understand. And it is the play’s segway into the memories of five very different men, who had served in different branches of the Army during the Second World War.
We are introduced to George ‘Merry’ Meredith, a Londoner who joins the Rifle Brigade but becomes a driver in the Royal Army Service Corps. Ken ‘Smudger’ Smith finds himself in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, Albert ‘Bert’ Barritt in the East Yorks, Ken ‘Cookey’ Cooke in the Green Howards and the gentle Dennis ‘Hank’ Haydock, a young lad from Sheffield with deaf parents, who is amazed to become a Guardsman and a Sherman tank gunner.
The play follows a roughly chronological approach to their memories, starting from enlistment, through training, to D-Day. There are no flash sets, just a few ammo crates: it is all about the men, their words, their thoughts and hopes and fears. The actors who portray them, young men like these veterans were more than seventy years ago, do so brilliantly. They aren’t simply delivering dialogue, they become these men, they live them through their words.
And that for me, was when the tears started because I could close my eyes and picture the real Smudger or Cookey saying the very same things on a D-Day beach, or against a bocage hedgerow, on one of our many trips to the old battlefields. It was a testimony to Carl Wylie, who played George Meredith, that watching him, it was just like being with George – and more poignant perhaps, as George passed away only a few weeks ago. George Stagnell who plays Cookey had obviously spent time with Ken, as he had his mannerisms and cheeky persona perfectly, but young Adam Bruce, who never knew Dennis Haydock, really did capture perfectly a kind, simple man, who witnessed some of the toughest battles of WW2. In the case of all five actors they depict the veterans so well, so intensely, that they take their words from the page and bring them to life, and in doing so they speak for the thousands and thousands of others just like them.
This was a play about ordinary men in extraordinary times. It deserves a much wider audience than the handful of regional theatres where it has been touring, albeit very successfully. These five veterans from York are quite simply the voice of the Long and the Short and the Tall: modest men who are among the heroes of that generation we should always remember because they stood up when they did not have to, and we owe them everything. This really is a must see play, which will stay with you forever.
Many thanks to Carl Shilleto – Fallen Heroes of Normandy for the photographs.