David Haig’s play, My Boy Jack, about the Kipling family’s struggle to square Rudyard’s flag-waving Imperialism with the tragedy that was visited upon them when his only son was killed in The Great War must rank amongst the most moving and poignant ways to remember those killed in conflict and the grief that surrounds their death.
Christopher Lacey, director of the play, which continues at The Stables Theatre, Hastings, until Saturday November 15, has stayed faithful to the original script but fans of the TV film will find a grittier treat awaits them at The Stables.
Bill Allender, playing Rudyard Kipling absolutely superbly, brings a powerful portrayal of the great writer resolute in his intellectual and political stance on the British Empire’s stand against The Hun. Hugely popular at the time, he commanded adoration amongst the ordinary people of Britain, compelling them to enlist or be shamed. His only son, John, is caught up in the patriotic fever but is turned down by the Navy and Army due to his poor eyesight. Rudyard pulls strings and enables John to join the Irish Guards. When, after just weeks on the frontline, he is reported missing, the news threatens to create a fracture in the blissful English idyll which Kipling has embodied.
Allender keeps Rudyard’s voice at a slight tremor, lending gravitas to his public speech (deserving spontaneous applause from the audience), intimacy when talking to his wife and daughter about his feelings, and charm at all times. His relationship with John is key to the success of this performance and James Slacke, as the teenager John, matches his stage father’s giant presence. Early in the play awkward and unsure of himself, struggling find his identity he is keen to flee the shadow of his father. But when in uniform he matures and becomes the man he is destined to be.
It is in the second half, during the family’s attempt to find out what happened to John, that we meet the shell-shocked Guardsman Bowe, who can shed light on Jack’s fate. Nick Carn gives a masterclass in reliving the terror, trauma and trepidation of the trenches. The stage set was very accomplished, most especially the trenches - made more believable by the crack of very loud explosions.
Haig’s play is suitably well-written and the cast of the Stables have done credit to his work, and therefore, the memory of one of England’s most treasured writers.