The D Day story of a Green Howard soldier is now available as an audio play.
The award-winning verbatim play, Bomb Happy, brings to life the first-hand accounts of five Normandy Veterans, including Ken Cooke who served with The Green Howards during the Second World War. With Covid-19 scuppering plans for the original play to tour, an audio version was created and is being be released online on Friday 6 November.
THE STORY OF THE PLAY
Bomb Happy tells the stories of five ordinary lads who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. It follows each veteran’s unique journey and depicts how these inexperienced young conscripts found themselves part of one of the most decisive operations of the Second World War.
At times humorous, at times harrowing, the Everwitch Theatre’s play allows a close-up insight into life on the frontline, and highlights the lifelong impact of post-traumatic stress disorder. Richard Beck, (Broadway Baby) who awarded the play five stars, described it as “a verbatim victory…a lasting legacy to the five men whose words made it possible.”
Unlike traditional verbatim theatre, with actors cast of appropriate age to interviewees, the playwright, Helena Fox, chose to write the characters at the age of conscription; an “inspired device” according to Beck, which “heightens the already vivid language and provides a powerful sense of immediacy.”
The play’s only fictional character, Queenie, gives the accounts of Normandy veterans’ wives, and gives a glimpse into life with someone beset by memories of war.
The idea for the play was conceived in 2016 when Helena met with York Normandy Veterans, including Infantryman Ken Cooke at the archives in York Library.
“There were five of us still alive then; Bert Barritt, Dennis Haydock, George Meredith, Ken Smith and myself,” remembers Ken, “and this idea came up to put our own words into a play, you know, for future generations to understand what we experienced. And it seemed a good idea.”
From its humble beginnings as a rehearsed reading at the library later that year, the play went on to a sell-out tour in 2017, produced by Everwitch Theatre, and, most recently, winning a Summerhall Lustrum Award at Edinburgh Fringe in 2019.
An autumn tour of the play had been programmed for 2020, but had to be cancelled due to Covid 19.
Ken is the last remaining veteran of the original Bomb Happy five. He wanted the play to somehow continue during these unprecedented times, in memory of his four friends, and as a way for communities to come together this year to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of Victory in Europe at a time of remembrance.
The audio play was created thanks to support from public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England. It was recorded during lockdown in the spring of this year and features a special closing address by Ken Cooke. The audio play, in three parts, is available online now and for the remainder of the year. If you are able, please use the online ‘pay if you can’ donation option.
CREATING THE PLAY DURING LOCKDOWN
The cast and creative teams worked on the project from the safety of their own homes. As with the stage productions and rehearsed reading, the veterans have always been a part of the rehearsal process and performances, and the actors were over the moon to have Ken Cooke join them via Zoom at an online rehearsal recently.
“It was great to see everybody, says Ken. “They all looked in good health! Over the period of the play we’d become really good friends with the actors, and it’s a pleasure to talk to them again and be part of their rehearsals and performances.”
Bomb Happy takes its name from a term the veterans use to describe PTSD – a condition that was still with veteran Ken Smith until his death, and still impacts Ken Cooke 76 years later.
Playwright Helena Fox believes the play resonates with contemporary issues facing society.
“The play not only documents the events of D-Day and beyond through the eyes of these young men, but also opens our eyes as civilians to the human story behind each fighting soldier,” says Helena. “This allows us to better understand the enormity facing the returning soldier – from World War II or more recent conflicts – in trying to transition back into civilian life. How can he or she fit back into the day to day life of Civvy Street after everything they have seen, or been through?”
Ken Cooke was 18 and working at Rowntrees in York when he was called up to fight. He was in the Green Howards but after severe injury was sent home. Once recuperated he was sent back out to the front line to join the Highland Light Infantry and fought all the way up to Bremen. He became very ill and went missing but turned up in a transit hospital ‘bomb happy’. He was able to return to Rowntrees after the war, and worked there for the rest of his life.
• Ken Smith had just begun an apprenticeship in Leeds at 18 when he was called up to fight. He was on the front line for five months as an infantryman with the Durham Light Infantry before being injured. After VE Day he was sent out to Palestine. The apprenticeship was not kept open for him. Ken passed away in the spring of 2020.
• Bert Barritt was an office boy of 18 in Bermondsey, London, when he was called up to fight, joining the East Yorks Regiment. His parents were deaf. His faith helped carry him through the war and he went on to work with the deaf community internationally. Bert died in November 2019.
• George Meredith was a 16-year-old office boy for Reuters, London, who helped his dad on firewatch duty when he volunteered. He became a driver with the Royal Army Service Corps. After the war, thanks to learning to drive in the Army he was able to get work as a lorry driver, which he did for the rest of his life. He passed away shortly before the play toured in 2017.
• Dennis Haydock was 18 and worked in a steel factory in Sheffield when he was called up to fight. He came from a very impoverished background; his parents were deaf. He was selected for the Coldstream Guards and became a tank gunner. He was blown out of a tank several times but refused to abandon his comrades although beginning to suffer from shock. He passed away a week before the initial rehearsed reading of the play in Oct 2016.