Edinburgh Fringe 2018
The Reverend Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy volunteered for the front line at the outbreak of WW1, he shared his faith and his fags in equal measure and he became the man to go to, a glimpse of light in a very dark place. He believed a padre’s place was on the front line taking the same risks as the men in the trenches.
One of the joys of the Fringe is finding the stories of unknown but real people. The Reverend Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, also known as Woodbine Willie (he is said to have spent the equivalent of £43,000 on over a million cigarettes for the soldiers he cared for in the trenches) wasn’t unknown at the time. 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.” When he died in 1929 (aged only 46) 1,700 people filed past his coffin in a Liverpool church, King George V sent a telegram of condolence to his family and ex-servicemen sent a wreath with a packet of Woodbines at the centre. However, like so many his story has disappeared from view. The aptly named Searchlight Theatre has brought his story back to life in ‘Woodbine Willie: Poet and Padre’.
Written by Robinson (who also plays Studdert Kennedy) the play is making a welcome return to Greenside. It has lost none of its original freshness. It is set in the trenches amidst sand bags and a handmade sign stating that this is ‘The Vicarage’. It follows the care Willie (his choice of nickname) offers, including the Woodbines and copious cups of tea, to a young conscript, George Barlow (Oliver Ward). it’s 1916 and the time of whole villages joining up intent on heroic soldiering are long gone; the sheer relentlessness of the war has hit home. George doesn’t want to be there and has no illusions including very little faith in God being on their side so Willie has his work cut out.
There is minimal action, this is a play more of words and ideas and finding some way to survive a world and situation that none of us in the 21st century can ever grasp more than a hint of.
Their conversations span the mud, the rats and Rousseau. Willie’s approach to evangelism was to ‘go out on the byways and bring them in’ and, if they didn’t wat to come ‘go out and join them on the byways’.
The writing is deft and confident presenting the compassionate side of Willie, his practical offerings of tea and Woodbines, his acerbic wit, the contrasts with his parish at home in Worcester and George’s life as a gardener in Norfolk, alongside his pastoral care, creating a likeable and caring character. Robinson also draws on Studdert Kennedy’s poetry to provide the stark contrast between tea poured from a delicate porcelain pot and the reality of life in the trenches. One that stood out for me was ‘Waste’ (appended to the review). There is no hiding the horror of the situation but there is wit aplenty as well, the whole supported by the judicious use of first world war music and songs.
A simple set of piled sandbags creates the trenches provides a backdrop. An image that immediately conjures up the trenches for us, it could be nowhere else. There are the simplest of props – an elegant teapot, cups and saucers, no tin mugs for Willie.
David Robinson is a little older than Studdert Kennedy was in 1916 but creates a warm and believable character. His performance is polished, witty and draws the audience into the world of the trenches.
Oliver Ward is a thoroughly convincing awkward young conscript outside Norfolk for the first time, and has a particularly fine singing voice for the songs that will always send a shiver down our spines.
Overall, an excellent show that will no doubt continue to keep alive the story of Woodbine Willie for years to come, and not just at the Fringe.