Brighton Fringe 2018
Looking at the programme for ‘Bully Beef’, I was struck by how young a number of the cast were. Eighteen, seventeen – one of them just sixteen. There were two other older actors making up the crew of the WW1 tank, but my first thought was that they’d done the show largely as a Youth Production.
Then it hit me … these would have been the actual ages of a great number of the British Tommies fighting on the Western Front. This was not a case of young people playing soldiers – a lot of those soldiers were young people.
‘Bully Beef’ takes place inside a Word War One tank. This is a Mark IV, an upgrade of the previous model, and a number of them have been deployed in their first action. It’s an assault on the German line, and the tanks’ job is to crush the barbed wire defences and support the infantry as they engage the enemy trench system.
Their tank’s called Bertie’. The name’s painted on the front of the tank’s hull, above a bulldog in a bowler hat, smoking a pipe,. They had built the exterior with the tank tracks at both ends, but the middle was cut away, like a construction drawing in an engineering magazine, so that we could see inside. ‘Bertie’ is pretty minimal – painted white, with just some levers and handles, and the butt end of what was presumably a machine gun set into the side. Sitting in the middle was a large black block with hoses and pipes attached to it – the engine. There was more room to move around than in a real tank, but when all five of the crew were inside, squeezing past each other, it gave a fair impression of the cramped conditions these men endured.
When they approach the German line, though, ‘Bertie’ breaks down. They’re immobilised, out on the battlefield with battle raging around them. The Captain – the tank’s commander – goes outside to attempt a repair and is immediately killed. So they are down to four.
The assault is a failure, as so many were. We learn later that it gained “all of twenty yards”. The British withdraw back to their own trenches, leaving ‘Bertie’ all alone in no-man’s-land. The Germans could easily destroy the tank with shellfire, but it’s a new model and so they want to examine it intact. Which means taking it from the men inside …
Writer Peter Garinder has managed to set up a very fruitful theatrical device – a small insular environment (almost a laboratory) in which to examine a whole range of themes. ‘Bully Beef” is about class, and the notion of duty, and about how people grow and develop as human beings. Garinder directed the production, too, and for the most part it’s very successful. The major problem was that the tank interior, being plywood, produced a lot of noise as the actors moved about in their heavy boots, and this, combined with some lines being delivered too quickly, made it hard to hear some sections with enough clarity.
The characters themselves, by contrast, were very clearly defined. The themes could so easily have been clumsily handled, but the Twobit company gave us something very special – intense drama that was at the same time thought provoking. I’m almost tempted to use the word ‘noble’. I believed in each of the characters, and by the end I cared about them very much indeed.
We’ve got Edward (Teddy) King, the Corporal who’s in command as he’s now the highest rank in the unit. Then there’s Smith, an older man, a Lance Corporal who deals with the tank’s mechanics. James Lovell, the vehicle’s driver, was at school with Teddy, while Jack Knibb, the gunner, is from the same part of the country as King – in fact lives and works on the King family’s estate.
So it’s a microcosm of the British class system. Teddy and James were at school together – Public School, obviously; their accents and talk of team sports made that very clear – while Jack’s family is obviously from a much lower social level. His ambition, “when this lot’s over”, is to work with horses on the King family’s estate.
“That’s bollocks”, Smith tells him, “You’ll be forever calling him Sir …”. Smith’s defiantly working class – note how he’s only ever addressed by his surname – and he’s seen a lot of the world as a soldier.
The ‘duty’ element comes because the tank is isolated, with no hope of the men inside being relieved. But it’s their post – it’s where they’ve been stationed – and it’s a terrible crime for a soldier to abandon his post. That’s certainly how Teddy sees it. He’s young, pink-cheeked, and fired with an unshakable belief in the notion of obedience to authority. (As an aside – I’m always fascinated by writers’ names for their characters. This scion of landed gentry has of course been named Edward, after another king: the late King.) There’s no way that this man would countenance surrender.
But that’s not how Smith sees it. Surrender’s their only option – apart from being killed, and Smith doesn’t think the cause is worth dying for. Or morally justified. He’s a veteran of the Boer War, and tells Jack of the horrors and atrocities inflicted by both sides in that conflict. He doesn’t mention the British concentration camps, but he has plenty of memories of burning Boer villages – “You can’t tell the farmers from the guerrillas”
After several nights of assaults on the tank which they repulse with machine gun fire, a German officer approaches to offer them the chance to surrender. Initially there’s refusal, vigorously enforced by Teddy – but eventually it’s James, Teddy’s schoolmate, who negotiates with the enemy Captain for the trapped men’s release.
At the start James had seemed nervous and insecure, very much in Teddy’s shadow; indeed their own Captain had classified him as ‘Weak’. But under pressure the boy grew quickly into a man, able to deal on equal terms with the much older German officer. Brokering an arrangement that allowed the men to return to the British lines. “It will be hard to restrain the natural instincts of my men”, the officer had said. “But they are your men”, James replied. Officer to officer, responsible for the men under their command. James knew that he was abandoning his post – a crime for which he himself would be shot as a deserter – but he had ensured the survival of those of his men that remained.
Or had he? Three of them had to walk back across no-man’s land, under the gaze of the comrades of the German soldiers they had killed. As they stepped gingerly down the auditorium aisle, I sat wincing, breathlessly waiting to see if three shots would ring out …