July 17th 1916
Looking Glass Theatre
Performed at St Peters Church
A November night, Remembrance Sunday in fact, a cold church and iron hard seats only add to the discomfort that this production brings.
Let me explain. You need to feel discomfort as you watch this powerful, poignant and topical story unfold in front of you. Killed tells the tale of young Billy Dean (Connor McAvoy) who, like his pals back home is swept up in the mass recruitment of men in World War One. Billy joins up, does his basic training and is shipped off to France to fight on one of the bloodiest and most brutal battle fronts ever imagined. I cannot express my admiration for the sheer brilliance of Connor’s performance as Billy. I admit I have seen Connor in other roles but this performance was head and shoulders above all the others. I felt his fear, I understood his naivety, I felt the love for his wife May Dean (Penelope May) and in the end, I felt his terror as he sat tied in the chair to meet his fate.
Penelope as May Dean is a gem. Her character starts off so happy and proud and she watches the volunteers march off to war, eyes wide and full of pride and passion. Even as she tells Billy it’s time to sign up, her face is still full of pride and wonder and you know she has no idea what is really happening all those hundreds of miles away. When Billy comes back on leave, she is thrilled to see him but the most heart breaking scene is when she is ready to wave Billy off back to war. Her once bright eyes are now filled with tears as she sees the wounded men coming back and the realisation of what her beloved husband is about to face. As I said, Penelope is a gem and perfectly cast in this tough emotional roll. You will weep with her. I did.
Now young Billy Dean, has a mate called Tommy (Stuart Warren) and what a mate to have. Clueless about the harsh realities of war that are about to hit them but with a really rubbish French phrase book (and an even worse French Accent) is more than happy to educate his new friend in the ways of the world. It’s a strange thing that audiences are afraid to laugh in what they know to be a serious drama but you could not help laugh at Tommy. Stuart is the perfect clown and as Tommy we see his talent to make you laugh out loud, but later, as he waits to go over the top, we see his fear, his indecision and alongside Billy, his sheer terror as the whistle blows, the smoke billows and they charge. Stuart carries two other roles in the play and gives his all in both. Once again, perfect casting.
Every regiment needs a fog horn voiced, barrel chested giant of a man as their Regimental Sergeant Major and we have one portrayed by Steve While. His recruitment speech made you want to stand up, to volunteer, to follow him to hell and back. Through the training he is what you would expect; loud, brutal, unforgiving yet fatherly in his own rough fashion. Steve gives a great performance as the RSM and somehow, you even begin to like his character and feel for him as he organises the final moments of young Billy Dean’s life.
Madeleine Hagerty is the final member of the cast and the two roles she portrays are poles apart. As the Patriotic Woman, she fixes you with a stare that dares you to look away as she tells the audience they should be proud to send their young men off to fight this war. You can imagine she has white feathers ready for those that do not sign up and fight. The women she addresses must choose between the fear of losing a loved one or being related to a coward, such is the force of her rhetoric.
Madeleine’s other character is Else, a friend to May and Billy Dean and who works with May in the ammunition factory. When we first meet her, she is suffering from the loss of her husband, shot and killed in France. Later in the ammunition factory she tells May that she has a new man friend and he is a conscientious objector. To her credit May never decries her for this but Elsie becomes more defensive of her new man and vociferous on the wrongs of the war. Madeleine brings both of these character to their full force and swapping from one to the other, is remarkable. I promise you that as you hear her hauntingly beautiful voice singing “It’s a long way to Tipperary”, shivers will run down your spine. Genius casting and outstanding performance.
James Smith has, without doubt, directed one of the most powerful, compelling and uncomfortable pieces of drama you will ever see. Such a minimal set and every action played out within hands reach of the audience just add to the brilliance. The sound effects, lighting and the incredibly evocative music choices just complete an outstanding production.