Dear Ted – Camden Fringe, Etcetera Theatre

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer and Director: Tom Simpson

Letters home were a key source of motivation for the soldiers of the First World War as young men sough to navigate the strange complexity of the place they found themselves in where the extremes of experience clashed with deeply engrained notions of duty and honour. Tom Simpson discovered exactly that in the correspondence between his civilian great grandfather Ted and brother Fred serving in France and Belgium in 1914 and 1915. Dear Ted, performed at the Etcetera Theatre as part of the Camden Fringe, is the result.

Long before war is officially declared, miner Fred is interested in being a soldier, serving with a Territorial division outside of work, so when the opportunity arises, he signs up eagerly. And while getting to France is not as simple as Fred expected, he is excited by the freedom it offers from his old way of life, although writing to his brother Ted back home, he starts to feel the weight of his responsibilities.

Simpson’s 35-minute play is filled with understanding about the complicated mixture of enthusiasm and fear that drove men to volunteer for the army in 1914. Using Fred’s letters, Simpson evokes well the sense of opportunity it created for men who had barely left the place they lived and, over time, how the reality of war with its many privations started to affect not only their motivation to fight but also how much of their struggle they revealed to their families. So, while the character of Fred is conscious of the censor, Simpson’s show charts the development of his experience, moving within the letters from notes about rats and billets to focus on the deaths of his comrades and the terrifying experience of attack, shifting the mood of Dear Ted.

Simpson’s purpose, however, is to further underline the heroism of men like Fred who continued to believe in a national honour and his duty to endure even when recovering from injury and fearing his next posting in Ypres. And Simpson uses the story to try to understand why, casting back to Fred’s pre-war life living and working alongside his beloved brother and other siblings, creating a connection to the Britain he knew and cherishing that link through his letters.

Simpson has created some interesting staging techniques including putting a tin hat on a shovel to imply a comrade, also using the shovel as the head of a pit pony. Simpson also creates movement to imply travel across the English Channel and in bumpy trucks, while sandbags and pallets create the landscape of the First World War, doubling for dugouts and trenches. The conclusion too is moving, using letters to quite a different effect.

Dear Ted is rather short and it would be interesting to explore that link to home in more detail. Fred speaks directly to the audience, like a tour guide to the war, but the absent characters need greater definition. We get a good sense of Fred but what is Ted like, his wider family and his single mother? What were the struggles of this family following the early death of Fred’s father and how did this feed into this sense of duty he feels to defend it all by going to war. Even if this were a 60-minute show, Simpson has time to play with, so there is space to make these other characters feel more substantial or even to further explore Fred’s companions, the men only mentioned in passing but who were just as vital to the sustenance of the First World War soldier.

Reviewed on 14 August 2022

The Camden Fringe runs from 1-28 August 2022

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