The Man and the Donkey

Valerie Laws
The Customs House
The Customs House, South Shields

Valerie Laws’ play was ahead of the pack; it originally saw the light of day in 2011 before the World War One bandwagon really got underway. Since when we have all become experts on the Great War and few people now don’t know of Gallipoli and its relevance.

But prior to this play, few people in the UK knew of John Simpson Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick grew up in South Shields (where this pay is performed) yet it’s in Australia that he’s celebrated and recognised as the eponymous man of the title.

He’s been on Australian stamps and coins and five statues have been erected in his honour down under. Several times the Aussies campaigned for a VC but the sniffy Brits always said no.

In 1915 Kirkpatrick, when serving as a stretcher bearer with the ANZAC forces, helped take to safety on the back of his trusted donkey more than 300 soldiers from Monash Valley to safety at Anzac Cove –and all this in just 24 days. He was killed on May 19 – this revival marking the centenary.

The production continues the Customs House long tradition of commissioning the region’s writers to pen plays with a strong local flavour which also contain universal relevance.

The cast of six, often tackling multi-roles and under Jackie Fielding’s imaginative direction, which miraculously creates striking images and effects from the least likely materials (a few brushes and lights become the face of Winston Churchill for example) rarely drop the pace. We journey from Kirkpatrick’s Shields childhood (where he first developed his love of donkeys while running rides on the beach), into the navy, then to Oz at the outbreak of war and finally into battle.

Most of the action is at Gallipoli and the entire play is set in front of or on top of a sandbag wall (design by Simon Henderson). James Henshaw’s lighting and Chris Allen’s sound (the latter occasionally drowning out the text), coupled with Fielding’s strong choreographed movement create many indelible battle moments, neatly offset against Laws’ effective humour. When told he may be honoured for his acts, Kirkpatrick says , “I’d rather they named a pub after me.”

James Hedley, Dean Logan, Jacqueline Phillips, Gary Kitching and Viktoria Kay make up a powerful cast. Here’s one little curio that somehow symbolises the importance of such productions; Viktoria Kay made specially for the play ten soft toy donkeys, sold for charity at a tenner apiece in the foyer. They were all snapped up rapidly by a packed first night audience

The disastrous Gallipoli campaign was where Australia (and New Zealand) were ‘blooded’ as nations. It was also where Winston’s Churchill’s career almost floundered even as it was being born. Both these aspects are touched on though the concentration is mainly on Fitzpatrick and colleagues. He was a simple soul, good-natured (the only time he gets angry in this brutal hell-hole is when witnessing the mistreatment of animals), a Pom among Aussies and played with an affectionate sensitivity by Jamie Brown. Reservations? Possibly Kirkpatrick lacks overall complexity, despite his heroic deeds and his obvious love of animals. A second main focus in the play would help.

But the audience received the performance with great enthusiasm at the poignant finale, recognising that someone important from their own town’s history was being acknowledged in theatre – and through a contemporary Tyneside author. 

Reviewer: Peter Mortimer

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