ON Remembrance Day (Friday), a packed Duns Volunteer Hall was privileged to enjoy a tremendous staging of ‘Brylcreem Boys’ by the Duns Players, with outstanding performances from the young cast, several of whom were treading the boards for the first time.
The event was held in aid of Help for Heroes and with extra seats having to be put in, raised £1100 for the charity.
The play, by Peter Durrant, is set in a WWII British hospital ward in the aftermath of Bomber Command’s disastrous raid on Nuremburg on March 30-31, 1944. Mistakes in the weather forecast and the flight route left the RAF bombers exposed to full German fighting power on a clear, moonlit night.
Ninety-six aircraft were lost and more RAF airmen died that one night than in the entire Battle of Britain.
Act One of Brylcreem Boys sees the traumatised survivors of a number of these bomber crews recovering in Peacehaven Hospital, whiling away the days with board games, boyish rituals and more sinister ‘make believe’.
There is Buzz, the combative Canadian mid-upper gunner (Patrick Watson), Breeding, the upper-class English navigator (Robert White), Bruce, the Australian flight engineer (Arran Robertson-Kane), and Sven, the other-worldly Norwegian bomb aimer (Joshua Bayles).
The two other occupants of the ward – pilot Skipper (Ben Foreman) and rear gunner Shorty (Matthew Taylor) – are the only two bomber boys from the same aircraft, the rest of their seven-man crew having been killed in the raid.
The shock has turned Skipper speechless, motionless and bedbound. Over this raggle-taggle group, Sister (Jane Smith) maintains order, protecting her young charges from further harm as best she can.
The ward’s monotonous routine is disrupted by the arrival of a new patient, Leading Aircraftsman George Nunn (DC) who has the misfortune not only to be suffering frostbite after falling asleep on guard duty, but also to be, in the bomber boys’ eyes, merely ‘a penguin’ or flightless member of ground crew and not the wireless operator that they so badly need to complete their imagined team.
“Not one of us,” Breeding dismisses him in clipped tones. George quickly compounds his isolation with a series of gaffes which emphasise the bomber boys’ fierce loyalty to one another and the closed society they can present to the outside world.
In a dramatic ending to Act One, as the ward subsides into silence after lights out, Skipper suddenly wakes, gets out bed and stands, looking at the moonlit sky. He calls to Shorty. They are going on ‘ops’ again to fight their demons in the skies above Germany.
In Act II the whole cast is woken, and, with Skipper at the controls, take their places in Lancaster Bomber ‘S for Sugar’ to fly a thrilling renactment of the Nuremberg raid, each airman reliving his own experience of that terrible night.
The audience is swept up in the vivid web of their imagination, watching heart in mouth as the action is brought to its final, deeply moving climax.
Director John Schofield gave a fine interpretation of Peter Durrant’s well-constructed work, combining a deft touch with a fine eye for detail to produce a piece that was historically convincing but brimming with a freshness and vitality that caught us in the slipstream of time.
The young cast, ranging from 15 years to early 20s, displayed an understanding of their characters well beyond their years and a natural command of acting that belied their lack of experience and training.
Let us hope that we will see more of them in the future.
All credit must go to Duns Players for this truly inspiring production and its use of local young talent.
The only shame is that the play was only on for one night. Perhaps further performances can be organised before the magic is lost.