My Boy Jack

by David Haig; dir John Smith

Loft Theatre, Leamington Spa

1-11 June 2011

My Boy Jack is a very moving play, dealing with the expectations that parents can place on their children. The story is based on actual events and the family is a famous one, that of Rudyard Kipling (played by Phil Reynolds), and centres around him and his adolescent son Jack (Luke Jackson Miller). Kipling’s wife, Carrie (Julie Godfrey), and daughter, Elsie (Kate Thorogood) make up the rest of the family.

The first act follows Jack from shortly before his 16th birthday in 1913 until 1915. Jack is desperate to escape the cloying atmosphere of the family home and, to satisfy his father, plans to join the military. Kipling, steeped in a belief in the glory of the British Empire and the nobility of the warrior, is right behind his son, pushing hard. There is a sense of vicariousness about Kipling’s eagerness for the boy to be a hero. Things are not so easy, however, for Jack is extremely short-sighted.

At the start Jack is being badgered by Kipling in preparation for the army medical while Jack veers between frustration and resolution. The lightly humorous scene of the army medical ends in inevitable rejection and is followed by a touching scene between Jack and his sister Elsie. Eventually, Kipling manages to pull enough strings to get Jack enrolled as a Lieutenant and, before he leaves for the front, we get a contrast between the two parents; mother Carrie caressing her son whilst Kipling, bursting with pride,  maintains his stiff upper-lip. The act ends with a transformation of the back of the set into a front-line trench as Jack and his platoon prepare to ‘go over the top’; a combination of speaking from the back of the stage, shaky Irish accents and having to shout over gunfire made this scene lose some impact.

In the second act, Jack is ‘missing in action’ and the family endeavour to discover his fate. Kipling struggles between pride and despair. A flashback to ten years earlier makes plain the love for Jack that he has difficulty showing, and he later laments that men in India are free, and even expected, to show their feelings. In a very moving scene, Carrie, torn between her pain and guilt for her acquiescence, recriminates Kipling for bringing about this situation. The scene where shell-shocked soldier Bowe (Calum Speed) tells of the battle is also powerfully charged. There were few dry eyes in the house after these scenes and, in the well-used silent pauses, you could hear a pin drop.

The issues dealt with in the play, irrespective of the war setting, are still relevant today. Although some less-experienced cast members were a little jittery, standards were high. All the main characters were convincing and easy to identify with; I particularly enjoyed young Kate Thorogood, whose realistic character portrayal was on a par with the experienced hands of Phil Reynolds and Julie Godfrey.

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