Death at Dawn

Peter Mortimer
Cloud Nine Theatre Company
The Memorial Hall, Wallsend

Stephen Gregory (William Hunter), Pip Chamberlin (Sergeant) and Jamie Brown (Pt Henry Stevens) Credit: David Turnbull
Stephen Grehory, Jamie Brown and Dean Logan (Pt Len Smiley) Credit: David Turnbull
Heather Carroll and Stephen Gregory Credit: David Turnbull
Stephen Gregory, Dylan Mortimer (Pt Jack White), Jamie Brown, Heather Carroll and Dean Logan Credit: David Turnbull
The cast Credit: David Turnbull

After a successful run at the Linskill Centre in North Shields in 2014, Cloud Nine has revived Peter Mortimer’s World War 1 play Death at Dawn in another two non-theatre spaces, The Memorial Hall (The MEM) in Wallsend and The Discovery Museum in Newcastle.

The revival is tinged with more than a little sadness in that the original director Jackie Fielding (whom I named as the BTG’s Best Director in our North East review of 2014 for this and another production) died at the tragically early age of 47 in 2015. There’s much sadness but it’s also a tribute, for Neil Armstrong, who took over the directing reins, decided it should be done “the Jackie way” and so, as his programme note says, “armed with a DVD and a copy of the prompt script” he set out to recreate the original production.

But there are cast changes—Dylan Mortimer now plays the psychopathic Private Jack White, Pip Chamberlin takes over as the platoon sergeant and Kyle Morley joins the group of four other members of the platoon—so inevitably there will be different emphases as each actor brings his own experience and personality to the part.

And of course the rest of the cast have had more than a year to reflect on their performances, kick themselves for what they got wrong, and deepen their understanding of the play and their part in it. And they will have done so; every actor worth his salt always looks back with that “if only…” feeling.

So this is not the same (even allowing for the changes of personnel) as the original but is rather the original taken to the next level—and, I rather suspect, it is very like what it would have been if Jackie Fielding had directed, as was planned.

It’s the story of North Shields Jack the Lad William Hunter (Stephen Gregory) who was executed by firing squad for desertion on the Western Front. He had had not run away from his platoon because he was a coward and wanted to avoid the coming battle but simply because he wanted to be with a French girl, Claudette, with whom he had fallen in love.

Indeed, such is the story of Hunter’s life: still just a teenager (if his claim to have been under-age when he joined up is to be believed), he was engaged to Bella in North Shields, had a fling with French-Canadian Juliette, whose husband was a powerful underworld figure, in Montreal, was attracted to sexy Angela in Liverpool and, of course, fell for Claudette. All of these girls are played by Heather Carroll, whose performance in the original production won her the award for Best Newcomer in the Journal Culture Awards.

Although the focus is on Hunter, Death at Dawn is a true ensemble piece, for the rest of the characters are more than just means of illuminating his character: the other soldiers are a cross-section of the different sorts of people, with their different strengths and weaknesses, who served in the army, from the poet to the professional soldier, from the psychopathic to the overly sensitive.

Thus we are not left with a moral to draw from the story. Indeed, there’s not even anything that could pass as an overriding morality. These are people in an impossible situation, dealing with it in the only way each individual can.

It’s a fine cast. The intimacy of working in-the-round in such a powerfully emotional piece would soon show up any flaws but there were none. They were totally absorbed in the performance and so drew us, the audience—or perhaps sucked us is a better phrase—into the same intensity of involvement.

It’s true to Jackie Fielding’s vision but also bears the indelible stamp of each actor’s personality and talent. And that is just how she would have wanted it!

Death at Dawn transfers to The Discovery Museum, Newcastle from 26 February to 2 March.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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