Major offers fresh look at First World War in new play

Gordon Jones
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A new playscript by Kevin Major was test-driven on Sunday afternoon in the rudimentary theatre — more lecture hall than theatre — of The Rooms.

However, since the descriptively, albeit cumbersomely titled “A Patriot Concert for our Soldier Lads Abroad” is principally set in the community hall of an unspecified Newfoundland rural settlement, the space is entirely adequate to the needs of text and performance.

The time is 1916. We are the audience for a concert of songs, recitations and addresses intended to raise funds to buy tobacco and other comforts for troops of the Dominion of Newfoundland fighting in the Great War. The other aim of the concert is to cajole and coerce fresh recruits to sign up in order to reinforce armies decimated in this latter-day crusade for king, country and liberty.

With a recruiting poster on the back wall (“Your Chums are Fighting. Why aren’t YOU?”) the concert is co-compered by a bemedalled Boer War veteran (played with gusto by Rick Boland) and by a comically garrulous society matron (Wendi Smallwood on her high horse). Sentimental, patriotic, and jingoistic songs are performed by Michael and Jessie Power, fresh and candid, to the piano accompaniment and vocal support of Kevin Woolridge — “When You Wore a Tulip,” “Let Me Call You Sweetheart”  and “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.”

The concert also offers two poetic recitations by Boland’s veteran recruiter. While the original concerts may have incorporated such recitations, they could easily be spared by this auditor.

Interleaved with concert material is episodic reconstruction of the experience of Newfoundland volunteers on horrendous battlegrounds and in unsanitary trenches in Belgium and France, in Egypt or the Dardanelles.

Backed by projected images and period photographs, the human cost of war is illustrated by means of soldiers, sailors and nurses, in period costume, writing and reading their letters home — letters and experiences saved from oblivion by archival preservation and placed now in the hands of Woolridge, the two Powers, and Jake Fisher.

War material and period song of “A Patriotic Concert” will be familiar, even predictable ground for those of a certain age — although this person of a certain age had no previous acquaintance with the phenomenon of patriotic concerts. Presentational style is sometimes reminiscent of show and tell, and there are elements of repetitiveness — perhaps inevitably — in the epistolary recounting of shared experience of war and suffering. Nevertheless, revisiting this tragic and more innocent era provides some touching and poignant moments within the amusing framework of Smallwood/Boland’s tag-team concert management.

Warm-hearted and educational, the play was enthusiastically applauded by the substantial Sunday afternoon audience.

While that audience was more silver-haired than most, I nevertheless wonder whether this play might profitably be toured to school audiences.

Commissioned by The Rooms, produced by Rising Tide Theatre and directed by Donna Butt, Kevin Major’s “A Patriotic Concert for our Soldier Lads Abroad” plays once more at The Rooms Wednesday  starting at 7 p.m. and running for 80 minutes.

General admission is $15, $10 for students and seniors — and audience participation is encouraged.

Organizations: Dominion, Smallwood, Rising Tide Theatre

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Tipperary, Belgium France Egypt

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  • Dick Coe
    June 05, 2011 - 16:23

    Please forward to the theatre company: If you go on the road to Tacoma (home of McChord AFB and FT Lewis, both huge), please let me know. Or if you should produce a CD. I'd bet we could promise an audience of 60-plus, if you could give us a Saturday night performance 10 March (tentative; could be 17 March ) 2012. That's the tentative date of our Western Front Assn. Annual Seminar, in Victoria, BC. Could you perform in the drill hall of a Territorial batallion? Thanks, Dick.

  • Gillian Davidge
    March 30, 2011 - 10:27

    Hello Mr. Jones, Thank you very much for taking the time to attend our Patriotic Concert and write an article about the performance. In your article you noted that it would be appropriate to perform it for schools. That was, in fact, our main motivation for commissioning the script and we have been offering performances to junior and senior high students at The Rooms all week. the public performances were really an added bonus as we felt that there would be sufficient interest in the topic amongst our visitors. Cheers, Gillian Davidge Manager of Education and Public Programming