The Fulstow Boys

Gordon Steel
Steelworks Theatre Company
Customs House, South Shields

Joshua Hayes as Charles Kirwan and Katy Federman as Dora
David Nellist (Maurice) and Simeon Truby (Graham) with, behind, Laura Mould (Nicola Pike) and Kay Federman (Moira)
Laura Mould (Nicola Pike) and David Nellis (Maurice)
Ash Matthews (George Marshall) and Katy Federman (Dora)
Simeon Truby (Graham) and Laura Mould (Nicola Pike)

The Fulstow Boys is theatre at its most basic—telling a story as effectively as possible and leaving the audience to draw their own conclusions, to make up their own minds about the moral dilemmas at the heart of the story.

But it’s not simple or unsophisticated; it tells two (or possibly two and a half, for the first could be divided into two) intertwined stories which happened over 80 years apart. And they are true stories. Yes, some of the characters are fictionalised and some are pure fiction, but the stories are true and the issues raised were and are very real and, although firmly rooted in the First World War and 2005, they are very relevant today.

The village of Fulstow in Lincolnshire did not have a war memorial, even though seven villagers lost their lives in WWI. The villagers wanted all the Fulstow boys who had died to be commemorated, but the powers-that-be would not allow the name of Pte Charles Kirman, a member of the BEF and a veteran of the Somme and Mons who went AWOL after suffering what we now know to be shellshock and was executed at the age of 32, to be on the memorial. So the village refused to have a memorial.

Move forward 87 years and Fulstow resident Mrs Nicolas Pike hears the story and decides that this is a wrong that should be righted and so began a campaign which was to prove successful and attract the notice of the national news media.

Writer Gordon Steel intertwines these stories—that of Charles Kirman, his family and his fate, the reaction of the villagers to his story and the events of 2005—moving seamlessly from one to the other. As director, he chooses to use just six actors to play the 13 parts and their transitioning from character to character and from period to period is equally smooth and seamless, even though costume changes are required. At times we even see one scene ending on one side of the stage whilst another is building on the other, a smoothness of movement greatly facilitated by a non-period-specific set designed by Foxton.

It’s a play full of pathos and joy, passion and humour and the cast is equally at home in those despairing years of the war and the very different time of 2005. Joshua Hayes plays Charles Kirman, and you would think that having to move from the happy, playful father-to-be to the broken wreck he became and then to gather together all his powers to face the firing squad would be demand enough on any actor but in the 2005 scenes he plays the formidable Nicola Pike’s husband, doing all he can to keep the family running smoothly while she is in the midst of one of her all-consuming enthusiasms.

Hayes's performance is faultless, so it is only through the face that we realise that these two very different characters are played by one and the same man.

Katy Federman plays his WWI wife Dora and Moira, the private school educated rival of Nicola Pike for the “leadership” of the village. One character bubbling with joy at her pregnancy, sad at having to wave goodbye to her husband as he heads for war, devastated by his fate, and the other, the 21st century woman, with barely contained anger and bitterness seething underneath and battling the demons of her own family memories from a more recent war. Again, huge demands on the actor, demands which are well met.

Laura Mould as Nicola Pike is the only company member who does not have more than one role, for she does not appear at all in the war scenes, but that doesn’t mean that the demands on her are any less, for she has to be so strong-willed as to be the driving force of the village, the raiser of funds and the organiser of fêtes, and yet be sympathetic, someone to whom the audience can relate.

David Nellist and Simeon Truby are a real a comedy double act in the 2005 scenes. Nellist is Maurice, the would-be singer, and Truby’s Graham is a martyr to his bowels, both characteristics that lend themselves to generating a lot of humour, but they are very different in the war scenes where Truby is Kirman’s father, with all the mixture of emotions that implies, and Nellist is the father of the young boy George Marshall who so hero-worships irman that he lies about his age (he is just 16) in order to sign up and follow in his idol’s footsteps.

Finally, there is Ash Matthews whose main part is young George but who also plays other parts as diverse at the Military Policeman who arrests Kirman and an old man at a pub table. A young actor with a promising future!

As for the lighting, the greatest compliment you can pay it in a show like this is that it is unobtrusive, just right for each scene, and with changes which are suitably subtle.

All in all, it really is a fine production, well—and cleverly—written and with excellent performances. It deserves to be revived—for it is coming to the end of its run—and further touring.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan