Sussex Playwrights Reviews: Bully Beef

Sussex Playwrights Reviews:

Bully Beef

Two Bit Productions
Written and directed by Peter Gardiner
Produced by Dan Skelt

A new play inspired by true events. September 1916, the Somme. A British tank breaks down and now the crew, fresh from training, must endure five nights in no man’s land. Besieged from without and unravelling from within.

Bully beef and hardtack biscuits were the main field rations of the British Army from the Boer War to World War II. Wikipedia notes that bully beef was finely minced corned beef in distinctive, oblong cans, and bully comes from the French bouilli, meaning boiled. Metaphor established, claustrophobia reigns as five men fight to survive crammed together in stark internal light and heavy shadows.

The play touches on aspects of class, new technology and the history of Empire, and happens inside a standing cut-out tank set, with light and sound explosion effects from behind. It’s interesting to note that it could be performed in the smallest venues where claustrophobia and constriction would be an asset – or placed within a huge space with the audience in no-man’s land.

Well-known Brighton actors Neil James and Russell Shaw are joined by a trio of teenage actors Ruben Pol, Aaron Ost and Jack Knibb, James doubling a pair of opposing officers as erudite, urbane German Werner, and quietly doomed British Captain. Shaw’s assured as engineer Smith, the bitterly humourous storyteller.

There’s a nice sense of the older seen-it-all officer and working class engineer thrown together with green lads, school boys really, including Pol’s young officer doing his best to make sense of the horror. Ost and Knibb’s panicking boys flicker from quiet to chaos and rising despair.

The soundtrack of explosions, machine gun fire and engines running heighten the rising panic contained in a tiny space, though I’d like a little more lighting to the faces and the German officer outside. Perhaps some clever shafts of moonlight.

The Exeter Street Hall is a former church building with a faint echo, meaning the acoustics were a little challenging at times, especially in the more chaotic action sequences, though the echo oddly added to the quieter and more contemplative moments of rest as the men reminisce and confide.

Gardiner and Skelt are the driving force behind Two Bit Productions, currently delivering a slate of new audio dramas via their Whispers Through The Static podcast. Bully Beef, Gardiner’s first stage play, has been shortlisted for the New Writing South Best New Play Award, given to a playwright in recognition of an outstanding, original theatre script presented at Brighton Fringe.

Exeter Street Hall, Brighton
May 25th and 26th 8pm
Details https://www.brightonfringe.org/whats-on/bully-beef-125289/

Photographs Thomas Everchild

Philippa Hammond