17th July 1916
At Northampton’s own Looking Glass Theatre I was witness to a very powerful and thoughtful presentation of “Killed”. Originally produced by the Belgrade Theatre Company of Coventry, this story tells the story of a young World War One infantry man accused of cowardice in the face of the enemy.
We, the audience see the attack, the young men going up over the edge of their rat infested, mud filled trench to face the enemy with just a Lee Enfield 0.303 rifle and 14” of steel bayonet between them and the enemy, his machine gun emplacements and his artillery barrage.
Our hero, and I used the word advisedly because no man who volunteered to fight for his country can be called anything else, is Billy Dean (Jaz Cox). With the deafening noise of gun fire, thick smoke and tangles of barbed wire to deal with becomes disorientated and ends up back in his own lines.
Dean is arrested and faces a Court Marshall where he is accused of cowardice.
Jaz Cox who plays Billy Dean is on stage more than 90% of the time is quite remarkable. We see him go from a young man with a beautiful young wife May played by Sasha Farmer who together, watch the first volunteers marching proudly through town. Throughout the play we see him slowly disintegrate until finally shot at dawn by his own friends and comrades. Jaz can show emotion and keep that emotion running high throughout. In his scenes where he is waiting for the fateful morning to come he sobs softly in his cell, all the while struggling to put words on paper to his darling May that adequately tell her how here hero has now fallen.
The play switches back and forth between the battlefield in France to the ammunition works somewhere in northern England where May and her friend Elsie (Jennifer Styles-Barker) work. The interplay between these two strong women is at times fun to watch yet other times strained as their circumstances change. Both are deeply powerful performances throughout.
David Heathcote, familiar to all Looking Glass Theatre goers is the great bull chested regular army Regimental Sergeant Major. With his booming voice, he thrills the new recruits with his zeal and passion. I have seen David in many roles but this was his most interesting character portrayal by far. Perfectly cast he cajoles befriends leads and finally executes his recruits with the ease of a man who only knows how to follow rules no matter how objectionable they may be.
Our final member of the cast is Tim Cole who plays Private Walsh, Tommy and Captain Howard. Tim is excellent in all three roles. As Tommy, he is Billy Dean’s mate who tries to teach him French; a hilarious scene I must say. As Captain Howard, he is the inquisitor who grills Billy Dean on what happened on that fateful day. His look of sheer incredulity when Billy admits to swerving away from a German machine gun emplacement really shows how so many troops were through of as cannon fodder by officers who had no experience but were officers only by accident of birth. As Private Walsh, he is ordered to be part of the firing squad, to shoot a mate, to shoot a man whose family he knows.
All is all this is a remarkable piece of theatre. In a small area with a very simple but effective set designed by Paul Beasley, the story is told, the deed is done but the audience are truly asked to decide for themselves if Billy Dean is guilty as charged or just a scared lost soldier who still wants to do his best for his country.
My hat is off to the entire cast and crew and the director James Smith for creating such a thought provoking, emotionally charged and outstanding piece of theatre. I wish them luck and I truly believe this show should be performed to church halls and schools throughout the land as both theatre and education combined. Is there any better combination?
Note: In World War One, 306 British Soldiers were shot for cowardice.