by Richard Fitt
The dream of all amateur theatre companies is of course to own your own theatre set in beautiful surroundings and equipped to the highest standards. The Mill Theatre Sharnbrook is one of the few groups in the country to have achieved that dream. The net result is that it attracts the best of the best in all aspects of theatre production from front of house management, to acting, to back stage. Therefore a visit to Sharnbrook is always an absolute delight, but of course the pitfall is that the standard expected of a production will always be that much higher. This is my second visit this year and they are yet to disappoint. This theatre is professional in all aspects of its operation with only the small matter of a lack of staff wages!
My Boy Jack is a play by David Haig about the effect the actions of Nobel prize winning author Rudyard Kipling has upon himself and his family as a result of pulling strings to secure an Army commission and subsequent front line action in 1915 for his 18 year old son Jack. Jack is severely visually impaired and fails medicals for first the Navy and subsequently the Army. Kipling, a deeply patriotic man fully supporting the war effort calls a favour in from his old friend, Field Marshall Lord Roberts to secure Jack a commission in the Irish Guards. Second Lieutenant Jack Kipling, who could and should have stayed at home is despatched to the front on his 18th birthday and very shortly thereafter takes part in the battle of Loos where he is listed as ‘missing in action.’ The Kipling family smitten by grief spend the next three years hoping against hope trying to find out what exactly happened.
Director Matt Baker chose to set this in a simple manner to blacks with the main action centred in the Kipling family home and with some very intelligent use of the perfectly authentic period furniture easily transformed to an army Medical Office and, with some clever drapes, the trenches of the Western front. The dressing room doors in the centre rear were used to great effect to simulate the entrance to other unseen trenches and the use of a single set of step ladders completed this effective illusion. The lightning was a sepia wash suitably gloomy to both the period and the play.
The actors in this play were, as I expect with this group, of the highest quality. David Midlane (whom I recently saw in The Ladykillers in Bedford) as Rudyard Kipling is quite simply one of the best and most experienced actors in the amateur theatre and therefore gave his usual top class performance, particularly with Kipling’s fumbling attempts to establish his relationship with his family and foist his ideas upon his son. His delivery of several very difficult monologues was quite frankly sublime.
Tim Palmer as John Kipling is obviously a man with a bright future on the stage, effortlessly showing a maturity of emotions in his relationships with family members and the troops under his command.
Rita Jones as Kipling’s wife and mother to John again showed all her experience as the background wife to a famous and at times petulant man, but still came across as a strong foil who could hold more than her own in this company. A rather beautifully understated performance.
Amelia Newman as John’s sister Elsie was suitably flighty and provided the joy and lightness to the family picture. I particularly liked her entrance hidden behind the chair, it fooled me!
The cameo performance of this show definitely belonged to Paul Wildman, who played Colonel Pottle & Guardsman Bowe. It was as Bowe the PTSD (or ‘shell shock’ as it was known then) soldier who eventually confirms that John was killed in battle which impressed. A monologue delivered with some emotion in a glorious Irish accent. And talking of Irish accents Jon Evans and Liam Sutton were no slouches in that direction either and completed a very strong cast indeed. Suitably larger than life characters as front line Irish Guardsmen.
The action was so moving in places that for example the audience respectfully failed to clap at the interval, which I’ve never before seen happen and even at the end with the fall of the poppies across the front of Paul Nash surrealistic painting clapping felt somewhat awkward. Deliberate or not it couldn’t help but leave a lump in the throat.
One tiny niggle which slightly spoilt the acting for me was the other actors’ reactions or rather lack of them to some of the monologues. It all seemed a bit deadpan to me. Hard to do I know and I admit I am nit-picking but I just felt concentration was momentarily lost in one or two such places.
Apart from the above criticism and one lighting cue that accidentally plunged David Midlane into premature darkness in the middle of a monologue this was about as flawless as amateur shows come and you could have put this out in any professional theatre, it was that good. In fact I’ve seen far worst professional shows.
I save my best praise for last. A very special mention must be made of the wardrobe, makeup and props department. The authenticity of the period was absolutely superb, not a stone remained unturned regarding having the right hairstyle, jewellery, dresses, army uniforms, the list is endless but it really made the whole appearance of the dressed stage absolutely Edwardian down to the last detail. A lot of research, forethought and hard work went into getting that right. So well done Virginia Pope, Ginny Baldock, Daisy Grove, Sue Lander, Demelza Barnes and Susan Moore. Brilliant job!
Well done and thank you to Matt Baker and his team you can be rightly proud of this one.
Finally thank you once again to Ian Lawson and his very hospitable front of house team, we were treated royally as usual and it’s always a joy to visit The Mill Theatre.