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Dear Chocolate Soldier

by on 7 November 2018

Age Shall Not Weary Them

Dear Chocolate SoldierWW1 IWM logo

by Kate Glover

Historia Theatre Company at OSO Arts Centre, Barnes until 10th November

Review by Andrew Lawston

Coming to the OSO less than a week before the UK commemorates the centenary of the 1918 Armistice, Dear Chocolate Soldier is a particularly timely production from the Historia Theatre Company. Billed as a “docudrama”, the show dramatises the years of correspondence that resulted from young Joan Burbridge posting a bar of chocolate to the soldiers on the front line, bearing her father’s inscription of “Little Joan”. In the trenches, Bombardier Edwin Hassall finds the discarded chocolate wrapper bearing Joan’s address, and so writes to Little Joan, talking about his life and experiences in the trenches with wit and plenty of historically fascinating detail.

Through this touching story, which lends a welcome human perspective to the international conflict of the First World War, Kate Glover’s script narrates the second half of the War; from the Somme, through Passchendaele, and even some time after the Armistice. Hassall’s letters, performed ably by Simon Brandon in authentic-looking World War One khaki, are interspersed with songs from the period, as well as poems, and short dramatic scenes extrapolated from the correspondence.

Choc 1

As the war grinds on, an increasingly cynical and weary Hassall returns to the front line as a sergeant, and “Little Joan” becomes both his personal mascot, and the name of his field gun. Kenneth Michaels plays numerous roles throughout the production, and increasingly supplements Hassall’s letters with quotes and narration from Field Marshall Haig, Lloyd George, and from General Ludendorff on the German side. Perhaps a victim of opening night nerves, Michaels seemed hesitant at the start of the show, but quickly settled into his numerous roles with confidence and gusto.

Completing the trio of actors is Kate Glover, who has enormous fun playing Little Joan in the opening scenes, before playing various characters throughout (most notably Hassall’s sister, Emma), and providing much of the narration. Glover is also the show’s writer (she settles for the more modest credit that the letters are “edited and arranged by Kate Glover”, but this seems to fall short of her contribution given the selection of musical numbers, poems, and dramatic scenes). Glover’s script keeps the proceedings varied, breaking up the letters with songs from the period, most of which will be familiar to contemporary audiences. All three actors reveal that they are also strong singers, with Simon Brandon’s voice ringing out particularly strong.

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With just three performers, and a superb pianist in the form of Director of Music Laurence Williams, the set is little more than a piano and two chairs against the drapes of the OSO’s black box stage. Enlivened by Michael Murray’s evocative sound effects, simple but effective costumes from Questors, and a lively performance of what could easily have been a very static piece, this minimal staging allows Hassall’s authentic voice to resonate with audiences with no distractions. Director Kenneth Michaels (also acting) keeps the show moving at a brisk pace, with barely enough time for Edwin Hassall to catch his breath between the end of a song and the start of the next letter.

The title Dear Chocolate Soldier can’t help but evoke the fictional Captain Bluntschli, the “chocolate-cream soldier” of George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man. Hassall’s letters convey a similar mundane and pragmatic approach to the business of warfare, most notably when he is furious over the wounding of the cook who was so good at preparing bully beef rissoles for the men. When the young Bombardier goes down with dysentery, he hangs on for a month as the trenches are so under-manned, before finally being hospitalised. He refuses to accept any glory in soldiering on despite his illness, instead feeling first disbelief and then jubilant relief when he is sent back to England to recuperate.

There is no room for nostalgic sentiment in this show, which pulls no punches when detailing the soldiers’ fighting conditions, rationing, and the vast numbers of senseless casualties, but it still has a great deal more warmth to it than , the show to which it will inevitably be compared, given its cabaret style. The play also touches on the way in which veterans are treated, as contentious now as in 1918, with Hassall’s fate desperately at odds with the “land fit for heroes” promised by Lloyd George.

Dear Chocolate Soldier is an entertaining evening that makes great use of contemporary documents to present a surprisingly fresh perspective on one of the formative events of the 20th Century. It is perhaps a shame that presumably only Edwin Hassall’s letters survive, as it would have been wonderful to hear some of the Burbridges’ replies, and to get even more of a sense of wartime society back in Blighty. But we are left with a compelling portrait of one man’s struggle through the War, and a glimpse of his innermost thoughts, and of the little comic incidents, often shot through with black humour, that made life in the trenches bearable.

Andrew Lawston
November 2018

Photography by Paddy Gormley

From → Drama, Reviews

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