New Chichester theatre company offers WWI commemoration on stage

Ed Cousens

A new drama company makes its debut with a production of My Boy Jack as part of the commemoration of the centenary of the end of the First World War.

Ed Cousens, director of drama at Westbourne House Prep School, is masterminding Westbourne House Players, an adult theatre group comprised of staff, former pupils, present pupils and friends of the school. The production will be in the school’s Millennium Theatre to raise money for The Royal British Legion. The performances are 2pm and 7.30pm on Friday, September 21 and 7.30pm on Saturday, September 22, with tickets available from eventbrite.co.uk.

It is 1913 and England is getting ready for war. Rudyard Kipling is torn between love for his son and an unswerving belief that his country must defeat Germany at all costs.

Despite his severe myopia and thanks to his father pulling strings, Jack Kipling joins the army to fight in The Great War. He soon discovers that life as a soldier is nothing like the romanticised stories of heroism and chivalry told to him as a child. When he is declared missing after only a couple of weeks, the news devastates his family back home in Sussex, and the search begins to find someone who knows what really happened to Jack.

The play by David Haig was famously dramatised for television, starring Haig himself as Kipling and Harry Potter star Daniel Ratcliffe as Jack.

“It was very useful for the character research to see the film,” says Ed. “What is so poignant about the piece is that Kipling is torn between his love for his country and his love for his family. What is really touching is the impact that that then has on his family. Going into a new era, with people being sent off to Afghanistan, it shows just how precious our family is.

“Rudyard Kipling is saying it is all about duty and the glory and that we must stand up for our country, and we have an element of sympathy for him. He didn’t understand or appreciate what the men were sent off to do. He thought it would be a macho gung-ho experience and that they would all come back heroes with very few casualties. He didn’t know that it was going to be the most awful experience man has ever had.

“We have sympathy for him, but we also have hatred for him because of the immense pressure he puts on his son, but at the same time that sympathy overpowers the dislike that we feel for the character.

“And it is so well written. Whenever Kipling is in full mode delivering his speeches about the importance of sending the men off, you are swept up with what he is saying and thinking ‘This is right and it is right to have patriotism!’ And then absolutely you have the sympathy for what happens and the fact that Kipling’s family will never forgive him.”

Ed added: “This is our first production. I set it up. There was enthusiasm among the staff and former pupils and present pupils for the idea of putting on a show and having the experience of acting. We started planning in April, and we came together and looked at the material and we felt that September was the right time to do it because we could rehearse towards the end of the summer holidays. And we also felt that this was an appropriate script because of the centenary of the end of the First World War coming up.”

Ed suspects an annual September slot is likely to be the way the company operates. They will make decisions for next year based on the response to this year’s debut production.

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