The Butcher's Bill

Ken Reay
Canny Craic Theatre Company
Customs House, South Shields

Paul Dunn (Uncle) and Steven Arran (Boy)
Lawrence Neale (Toff) and Paul Dunn (Uncle)
Steven Arran (Boy), Paul Dunn (Uncle) and Lawrence Neale (Toff)

We have a picture of the battlefields of World War I as being lines of trenches facing each other across No Man’s Land, which was a wasteland of shell holes and devastation, with constant bombardment from the artillery of both sides and with the frequent attempts by them to take the opposition’s trench by attacks on foot—rifles at the ready and bayonets fixed—across that area between.

But the lines of trenches went on for miles and battles tended to be in limited locations and so there were areas of No Man’s Land which weren’t being constantly swept by machine-gun fire and not in danger from shells falling short. These areas were places of refuge for deserters from all sides who tried to make their way to the end of the trench lines and, hopefully, to safety and freedom.

It is in one of these areas that The Butcher’s Bill is set. Two British soldiers—Uncle, an older man, and Boy, a rather simple young lad who had lied about his age to enlist along with his brothers, all of whom have been killed—are sheltering during the day before moving on, knowing it is safest to travel by night.

Uncle has been many things in his life—a butcher, a ship’s cook, a pirate and many more—or so he tells Boy, whom he entertains with his stories.

Into this almost cosy situation crawls a wounded officer, Toff, who, like Uncle, is, it transpires, not all he claims to be. What is true, though, is his desire to get back to the British lines to get medical treatment.

And so the stage is set for the inevitable conflict.

It’s a well written piece, poetic in places, and the performances are excellent. Steven Arran’s Boy is particularly impressive, capturing his naïveté and essential childishness perfectly, creating an endearing and sympathetic character in a part which could so easily slip into caricature.

Paul Dunn presents us with a very ambivalent character in Uncle. He starts the play with a very poetic speech and for quite a while we do accept his account of a very chequered career as true, only gradually realising—as it becomes clear, for example, that his piratical adventures are lifted from Treasure Island—that he is a fantasist, or possibly just an excellent con-man.

Toff is an officer, certainly, but one who is projecting a false façade—upper-class, his home a castle, a would-be poet (shades of Rupert Brooke)—and in Lawrence Neale’s performance we see the fragility of that façade as he gradually crumbles under the pain of his very serious wound, the blank refusal of Uncle to take an order and even Boy’s easy gullibility.

Director Jamie Brown keeps the pace and dynamic of the piece under tight control, working with his cast to provide us with a relatively unknown but illuminating and moving facet of that bloody conflict.

If I have a criticism it is that the lighting did just that—light the stage—and nothing else. It contributed nothing to any atmosphere or sense of threat, to any feeling of isolation, or even an indication of the passing of time. One missed opportunity out of many which were not missed; we can forgive!

The production goes on to Alphabetti Theatre in Newcastle (20 and 21 June), Arts centre Washington (22 June) and The Exchange, North Shields (23 June).

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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