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Nothing Like the Wooden Horse

Tom Kelly
Customs House, South Shields
(2009)

Production photo

If the Customs House could be said to have an unofficial writer-in-residence, it would be Tom Kelly. Over the years he has written many pieces for the theatre, including three musicals. It is, however, nearly five years since his last full length play

His most recent piece (in 2006) was Five By One, a series of five monologues which marked something of a departure for Kelly: not the monologue structure, for he had done that before, but the fact that, in them, he turned away from his more usual lyrical, nostalgic and gently amusing slices of North East (and, in particular, Jarrow) life to something darker and bleaker. Nothing Like the Wooden Horse carries this development a stage further.

In it he intertwines the story of Tommy, a prisoner in German POW camps in World War II, with that of his grandson Wayne, also in the army, whose job it is to guard Iraqui prisoners. The play, although dealing with the strong ties between the two men (family ties are a recurrent theme in Kelly's work), focuses mainly (but not exclusively) on their wartime roles and experiences, on the loss of comrades and friends, on having to do things which they can never forget, which haunt them. Running through the play is a pervasive sense of loss, not just the loss of friends directly and indirectly due to war but the loss felt by Wayne who cannot understand how his father could cut him out of his life totally when his (Wayne's) mother threw him out, the loss Tommy still feels over the death of his wife, and, indeed, the loss of innocence they both experienced.

Kelly makes it clear there is no quick fix: that, in fact, some things cannot be fixed and that Wayne must find some way to deal with his sense of loss, just as Tommy has had to do over the fifty years since the end of his war.

It's a deeply moving piece, made more so by Kelly's trademark gentle humour which surfaces occasionally. It works through conversation and flashback, with the two actors, Donald McBride (Tommy) and Michael Imerson (Wayne), playing all the parts. And very well they do it, too. On the first night Imerson seemed a little restrained at first but soon relaxed into the role, whilst McBride gave his usual confident and well-in-control performance.

Jackie Fielding - who, if Kelly can be seen as the theatre's de facto writer-in-residence, could equally be called its director-in-residence - gives us variety of pace (so essential in a two-hander) with some effective imaginative moments, such as when the two WWII soldiers wade ashore, rifles above their heads.

The set, by Simon Henderson, is compact and effective, enabling movement from Tommy's living room to the other scenes to be effected with the minimum of interruption to the flow of the piece.

I have not, I admit, seen every play that Kelly has written, although I have seen most of those he has produced in the last ten years, but Nothing Like the Wooden Horse seems to me his best to date. The first night was full - small-scale regional theatres can't usually afford the luxury of previews! - but tickets are available for the rest of the short run. Theatre lovers in the area should not miss out!

"Nothing Like the Wooden Horse" runs until Saturday, 31st March

Reviewer: Peter Lathan