Writer and Director: Chris Hawley
Originally created for the centenary of the Armistice in 2018 and toured widely, Chris Hawley’s play about the First World War, Bully Beef and Whizzbangs, has been repurposed as a radio drama available as part of the Living Record Festival until 23 February. This conversation between an established soldier and a new recruit makes an evocative transition to the audio format, containing an engaging social history of 1916 that emphasises the humanity of the men who fought.
Eager to start fighting, Private Richard “Smudger” Smith lies about his age to get to the Front and finds himself in a Company with Corporal Harry Spriggett with whom he quickly builds a rapport. Across that first day, the pair discuss their lives, the day-to-day routine of fighting, the enemy and the mixed allure of home. But as the night draws on will Richard’s gung-ho enthusiasm survive the reality of trench warfare?
Hawley’s well-researched play is filled with many of the recognisable tropes of the First World War; mud, rats, lice and tea tasting of petrol while the relationship with officers, their own recruitment stories and articles from The Wiper’s Times are skilfully woven into conversation. But what makes Bully Beef and Whizzbangs so interesting is the very different perspective that Hawley brings, largely eschewing the familiar story of bombardment and fighting for the more usual experience of waiting that was the predominant experience for those who fought.
The contrast of old hand Harry, a Reservist who has been at the Front since 1914 and the over-eager naivety of Smudger is the oldest war story trope of all and few will be surprised by the inevitable outcome. But Hawley uses it to contrast the external impression of war with its patriotic fervour and unilateral beliefs in a terrible ‘enemy’ with the lived reality of making do and hints of sympathy for German soldiers in what was ultimately a shared experience.
Some of the best sections of this 70-minute drama conjure up the complicated relationship with the concept of home as the men discuss their family lives. With far longer service, the ambiguity of leave is particularly notable in Harry’s story, feeling somehow separated from his loved ones in this now unreal world where life continues as normal while his absence from his comrades creates a feeling of guilt. But the men never question the war; there is no generic General-bashing, and the politics of it all rightly never comes up in conversation. These men live with the quiet routines that Harry sets out – Stand-To, ablutions, meals and visits from Officers, posties and Chaplains.
Harry is then the most interesting character, played here by Callum Smiles with an easy nature that makes him a warm companion for Smudger. Harry is a pragmatic and compassionate presence throughout, welcoming the new lad with a sarcastic warmth while offering a moral support to his nervous Lieutenant whose touch of neurasthenia is treated with care by the junior soldier.
Sam Claridge’s Smudger is far more ebullient and eager, arriving at the Front as though all his dreams have come true. Swept along on a tide of patriotism, his is a Working-Class story filled with his mum’s pies, an outdoor privy and trips to local shows, drinking in the recruitment propaganda. And while Smudger is a little two-dimensional, Claridge finds plenty of charm in the creation of character.
The soundscape is perhaps a little quiet and while the Front Line ran close to farms and woods, with noncontinuous bursts of artillery the near silence doesn’t suggest the presence of thousands of other men who would also be talking nearby and the engines of the many reconnaissance planes above. Nonetheless, Bully Beef and Whizzbangs makes for vivid audio drama and a smart way to extend the life of the play.
Runs here until 23 February 2021
The Living Record Festival runs here from 17 January to the 22 February 2021