PLAYWRIGHT Benedict Barrett’s play The Biscuit Tin was premiered this week in Salisbury by the Studio Youth Theatre. Benedict himself is a fourteen year old student from Bishop Wordsworth’s School and the play was commissioned, although I strongly suspect without any fee, by the director of a previous SYT production.
In The Biscuit Tin, Benedict has taken the subject of the First World War and given it a new and refreshingly youthful twist. The clever but by no means contrived plot, told partly through flash backs, springs from a chance meeting between Reg, a veteran of the Great War, and a young boy, Harry, whose father was killed at Ypres. Reg himself was played by two actors, Aaron Abbott-Myercroft as Reg the old soldier, and [another] as the young medical school lecturer reluctantly sent to the front. Both were absolutely excellent; despite playing a character significantly older than themselves, we soon forgot that we were watching teenagers and quickly became engrossed in and convinced by the unfolding story.
The young boy, Harry, was delightfully portrayed by Ellie Webber who also gave a very strong performance throughout. He is in search of a convincing explanation of what actually happened in the War and, of course, how and why his father was killed. As the plot develops it transpires that Reg actually fought alongside Harry’s father, Harry Senior, and that, as a medical man unable to save a comrade, he had always held himself responsible for his death. Harry Senior himself was played by playwright Benedict Barrett who is clearly a man of the theatre – every bit as competent as an actor as he is script writer.
Harry’s mother was played by Emma Knowles and hers was another persuasive performance. There was real poignancy in the scene, early on in the play, where we find her crying over her late husband’s letters, and when, later on, she gives young Harry the very last letter he wrote.
Fraser Adams clearly relished his role as the obnoxious Major Brackenhurst. Throughout the first act, it was largely left to him to provide some of the much needed touches of humour to the storyline, and this he did with considerable panache. As the play progressed however, it became clear that he was far from simply being an upper class twit. The extraordinarily powerful scene in Act II (which, incidentally, cleverly followed some humorous extracts from The Wipers Times) between him and young Reg showed just what an odious individual he really was.
Amongst many other fine performances, mention should also be made of Laura Melville as Marsden, the regular soldier who just goes with the flow. Totally involved, with a great attention to detail and a wonderfully expressive face, her performance was particularly believable.
Although I have singled out a number of individual performances, Sally Marshall’s production was very much an ensemble piece and it was very evident that the actors had worked alongside one another for some time and had, no doubt, gained considerable strength from doing so. Most members of the cast took on a variety of roles, but far from making things confusing, the strength of much of the characterisation, together with some effective costuming (I particularly liked the sleeveless Fair Isle pullovers!) kept things relatively unambiguous and demonstrated what a good team she had to work with.
What made the play particularly poignant for me was the fact that many of the cast, probably composed entirely of teenagers, were playing characters not much older than themselves. To have taken on the role of a young soldier in the trenches knowing that one hundred years earlier youngsters of much the same age had been doing the same thing for real must have been an extraordinarily moving experience. Perhaps it was this more than anything else that I found so touching.
One of the most powerful scenes in the play, when Harry bursts in on Old Reg’s court martial and interrupts the hitherto perfunctory proceedings, was also one of the several clever ideas which brought a considerable degree of freshness to the play and spoke volumes for the power and optimism of youth to bring about change. It also gave the drama a wholly appropriate feeling of closure.
The staging was simple but effective, making use of a few projections and some well chosen props. The acting space was generally well used and some of the tableaux – I am thinking here particularly of the stillness at the start of Act II with the dead allied soldiers and the dying German – were remarkably striking. Some of the scene changes however would certainly have benefitted from tightening up in order to improve continuity and thus sustain the dramatic impact of the piece. It was a pity too, that many of the scenes seemed just to finish when, with maybe a little improvisation or extra dialogue, they could so easily have flowed into the following scene.
Although I have it from a reliable source that he wrote his first novel whilst still a pupil at Broad Chalke Primary School, The Biscuit Tin is Benedict’s first full length play. One can only hope that it does not prove to be a one off. A fine piece of work and one that will stay with me for many days to come. Congratulations Benedict Barrett and the Studio Youth Theatre.