World War One-inspired play for Festival of Chichester

John Burrows directs former Flying Pickets Gareth Williams and David Brett in his own play Stony Broke in No Man’s Land for the Festival of Chichester (June 25-27, Vicars’ Hall).

John Burrows
John Burrows

When Private Percy Cotton’s commanding officer is killed, Percy is determined to return his diary to his next of kin.

But the love of his life, Nellie Mottram, has other ideas. She soon convinces Sir Arthur and Lady Elizabeth Munroe she is in contact with their dead son. Taking up residence with them in Grosvenor Square, Nellie abandons Percy to his fate on the battlefields of France and is soon the aristocracy’s favourite psychic. And mistress to Sir Gregory Sleight…Secretary to the War Cabinet.

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As John explains, the background to it all is the tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

John Burrows

On 11 November, 1920, the Unknown Soldier was buried with great ceremony in Westminster Abbey. But was it a genuine act of recognition and gratitude by Lloyd George’s government? Or a calculated display to diffuse the pain and anger of a country grieving for nearly a million dead?

And where did the idea of burying the Unknown Soldier come from? Did an army padre suggest it to the Dean of Westminster who passed it on to the Prime Minister? Or did Lloyd George perhaps get the idea from a very different quarter...

The play was born of the looming 2014 centenary of the start of the conflict, John explains.

“I thought I would write a play about World War One, as simple as that really. It was hardly original as an idea as everyone was wanting to do the same, but I wanted to tell a particular story. I was interested in the way the war in general as World War One was being repackaged.

“At a personal level, the sacrifice was so enormous, and if people had relatives that went through it, there is a very human response to it for people who have lost an ancestor. Just as a human being, you find yourself astounded by the figures. But there seemed to be a certain kind of political element coming into the war. There seemed to be something else that was trying to be generated.

“In a way, we have become quite a celebratory society. You think of Cameron getting rather excited about the way the Olympics brought the country together. I think the government recognised the social adhesion that could be generated by something so significant in a nation’s past.

“Is it a good thing? It depends what it is used for. For people to be proud of what their country has achieved or to respect what their country has suffered is a good thing. But it can also be used possibly in a bad way... When we remember the war, are we celebrating it or are we saying ‘Never again’?

“Some time ago I went to a remembrance service at Westminster Abbey. The actual prayers in the church were remembering the enormous sacrifice of the army, but the last prayer prayed that if something like that comes again, we must be prepared to step in and do it all again. That really shocked me. Everybody said how dreadful it was, and there you were seeing a darker side to the commemoration. They are making everyone aware of the blood sacrifice, but they were also saying that if you are not prepared to repeat it, then these people to a certain extent died in vain…”

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