Home » Reviews » Drama » Killed: July 17th 1916, Jack Studio Theatre – Review
Credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes
Credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes

Killed: July 17th 1916, Jack Studio Theatre – Review

Pros: A topical, moving production looking at the story of one of the millions of men killed in WWI. Moving, polished and incredibly professional.

Cons: Though advanced for what was originally a TIE (theatre in education) play, the characters were slightly underdeveloped.

The Jack Studio Theatre, though a pub fringe venue, is one of the most professional and high-quality in London. This production was consistent with its goal of promoting excellent new writing. On first impressions, the superior set evoked the patriotic idealism of small town England at the start of WWI. It was so well-designed and well made by the talented Dave Benson,  that it would easily have been at home on West End stage. A light dose of smoke and dim light juxtaposed the propaganda posters and huge union jack.

The play uses a non-linear structure to tell the story of Billy Dean, a volunteer solider from Bradford, sentenced for cowardice in the face of the enemy. We see his journey from a naïve newlywed, convinced of the glamour of war, to someone broken by the realities of it. An accidental chain of events led to his sentencing and death. His story is told through flashbacks as he waits execution. The script was originally created by Belgrade Theatre’s TIE company so no writer is credited. The flashbacks are regular but not too often to forget present setting and gradually reveal the story with good pace. There is an excellent use of foreshadowing, particularly when Billy’s wife is making bullets in a munitions factory as he writes her a letter explaining that he is to be shot. The best element of this production is the script and story. With a raw, extremely human perspective, they look at an element of the First World War that is often overlooked. Even though the ending is rather abrupt, to alter it would take away from the harsh circumstances.

The performances are good, but not outstanding. This is mostly because the characters were written without a great deal of depth but they still suit the story as they are. They are nonetheless, unexpectedly advanced for a production that started in TIE. Tom Woodward as Tommy / Private Walsh was the most captivating and had some enthralling scenes, particularly with Pearce Sampson’s Billy Dean. Billy and his wife May (Mabel Wright) shared some exceptionally sweet moments, providing stark contrast to Billy’s life in the trenches. Neil Hobbs as the Sargent Major was alarmingly shouty but heartened the audience with a poignantly quiet scene with Billy in the second half where he begins to admit that the war seems to have no point.

The costumes were of a high calibre for fringe theatre; even more impressive as I can imagine decent WWI uniforms will be hard to come by in the midst of the current WWI centenary commemorations. Althought there were some barely noticeable, minor inaccuracies, costume designer Lorena Sanchez’ creative talent certainly shined through. Sound designer Max Thompson’s relentless bomb blasts during scene transitions became predictable, but perhaps that is part of the atmosphere he wanted to create. We certainly never forgot the world of the play was amidst the front lines of WWI.

This is a story that definitely needs to be performed again. Director Elizabeth Elstub handled it clearly and simply, without any complex directing trickery. She let the story speak for itself, mournfully reminding us that Billy Dean was one of hundreds of souls to be shot for cowardice or desertion and one of millions to die in the years of WWI trench warfare.

Director: Elizabeth Elstub
Producer: Bang Theatre
Booking link: http://www.brockleyjack.co.uk/whats-on/theatre/
Booking Until: 9 August 2014 (now closed)

About Laura Kressly

Laura Kressly
Laura is a former actor on a good day, or ‘failed actor’ on a bad day. She works in Drama education, as a children’s entertainer, an event catering waitress and a private tutor and is way too old to have this many jobs. She has a degree in Theatre Performance from Marymount Manhattan College in NYC and an MFA in Staging Shakespeare from the University of Exeter, both of which have qualified her to work entry-level jobs and "(if you can't do,) teach." She co-ran a fringe theatre company she founded for 5 years but learnt the hard way there are easier ways to lose money. She loves any form of theatre really, though Shakespeare is her favourite and dreams of going back on the stage one day.
  • Paul Fuller

    I saw the play on Saturday night, having been in a previous production back in 1988. The play is not exactly new writing now. It was devised in the late 1970s and perhaps seems a little simplistic in the context of the intense scrutiny which the centenary commemorations have brought to the subject. But, as the review states, it was created as a piece of educational theatre and its simple power still hits home. I agree that the characters are inevitably rather underdeveloped in the script but the cast brought some depth to them through their performances. Especially poignant was the realisation that the RSM is also a victim. Credit due to Neil Hobbs for hinting at the character’s vulnerability in the 2nd act particularly. Both the RSM, the career soldier, and Billy, the volunteer, have escaped poverty by joining the army but are brutalised and disoriented.by a war whose nature they could never have imagined. Good supporting performances all round – Annabelle Green movingly plays a grieving widow who begins to question the war and Jordan Alexander is convincing as a young Captain who is given far more responsibility than he can be expected to shoulder – but, overall, more pace in the playing would have helped the more comic moments and highlighted the rapidity with which events lead to an unjust and tragic conclusion.

  • Sophie TL

    I also was lucky to be part of the audience on Saturday. I thought the cast was really strong and in particular Pearce Sampson and Neil Hobbs but, agree with the review, that the script could do with further development to round out the characters. Also hats off to Elizabeth for very sure footed directing and pulling a multi layered production together on a very tiny budget. Can wait to see what she does next.

  • Sat K

    I thoroughly enjoyed this play, I was gripped from start to finish, the performances by the actors were believable and I cared about what happened to Billy. The scenes moving from past to present was cleverly done, without complication and this meant I was able to follow the story really well. The set was amazing it provided the atmosphere and the feeling of what it might’ve been like for people during that time. The props and costumes were great too. This play had emotional depth, good acting and simple but clever storytelling and it opened up a piece of WW1 history I was unfamiliar with so all round a fantastic production.