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Review: The Fighting Bradfords at Durham Gala Theatre

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Band of Brothers

Merry it was to laugh there -
Where death becomes absurd and life absurder.
For power was on us as we slashed bones bare
Not to feel sickness or remorse of murder.
Wilfred Owen

The Fighting Bradfords
Durham Gala Theatre
Until Saturday 17th September 2016

2016 is the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, one of the significant events of the First World War. For the last couple of years a number of shows have recalled the events of that war. The stories have looked at groups of friends joining the pals regiments (Accrington Pals REVIEW LINK) or concentrating on one hero (The Man and the Donkey REVIEW LINK) and The Fighting Bradfords looks at the exploits of 4 brothers.

Based upon these Durham lads from Witton Park, the show feels unique in that it looks at the fate of the officers rather than the lower ranks of the army and navy. The story begins with the last surviving brother, Thomas Bradford (Chris Connel), meeting up in the 1960s with a young history graduate. After a lot of exposition the young brothers are on stage playing rather than heading home for their tea.

Suddenly they seem to join the war – three in the army, joining the Durham Light Infantry, and the fourth joining the navy.  Regular references to their upbringing, in particular their father’s expectations of the behaviour. These snippets of story are interlaced with small episodes from their career in the forces. So James (Jamie Brown) became injured and was able to return home and marry his sweetheart (Jessica Johnson). Roland (Justin McDonald) becomes a highly thought of officer with radical ideas about how to keep his men happy whilst George (Micky Cochrane) was itching for his chance to shine in the navy.

The individual performances are great. Each actor is convincing in their role and elicits empathy from the audience. Jamie Brown’s character is clearly torn between the role of a husband and that of a patriot. Micky Cochrane’s character is both a passionate brother and a fighter. Chris Connel plays someone who is bemused by the young undergraduate who asks him about his brothers whilst being proud of his past. Jessica Johnson reduces the audience to tears as the mother and wife who is left wondering if her loved ones will return.

The issue isn’t with the acting but, somehow, the sum of the parts doesn’t add up to a coherent theatrical experience. The programme notes the audience needs to “exhaust our skills of ‘make believe’”. One problem is, for example, that it often takes a while to realise that a member of the small cast is now actually playing another part in the same soldier’s uniform.  The shift in time makes you wonder if the young members of the Durham Stage School, who appear from time to time, are in the 1960s or from before the Great War. Characters are suddenly announced as dead without a clue as to how it happened.  

Col Sir Thomas Andrew Bradford, Distinguished Service Order; Lieut Cdr George Nicholson Bradford, Victoria Cross; 2nd Lieut James Barker Bradford, Military Cross and Brigadier-Gen Roland Boys Bradford, Victoria Cross and Military Cross were highly courageous and deserve to be remembered.   
The Fighting Bradfords conveys their sense of comradeship and duty. Jamie Brown, Micky Cochrane, Chris Connel, Justin McDonald do a magnificent job conveying the raw emption and patriotic fervour of the time. Likewise Jessica Johnson expresses the sheer sense of loss and the apparent pointlessness of the war. It is impossible not to be moved by her scenes.

The story is definitely worthy of being made into a play however it feels like this show hasn’t been fully developed, yet, into a finished product.  However, a review is simply one person’s point of view. Indeed there have been plenty of people on social media who have said that they loved the play. It is just that the narrative felt “messy”.  But that’s just my opinion.

This review was written by Stephen Oliver the North East Theatre Guide – follow Stephen at @panic_c_button

A good book about the Bradford brothers is currently on sale at the theatre. The Fighting Bradfords – Northern Heroes of World War One by Harry Moses is published by County Durham Books.

The Fighting Bradfords runs from Thursday 8thto Saturday 17th September at The Gala Theatre, Durham. Tickets from £12 - £15 are available by contacting 03000 266 600, visiting Gala in person or online at  A Pay What You Like performance is being held on Monday 12 September, booking available by phone or in-person only.


1 comment:

  1. Interesting review. I think the disjointed narrative made it all the more powerful - we never remember things in order. One memory can lead quite randomly to another. And I think the experience of those in the war must have been very disjointed - no news for weeks or months at a time, and when it finally came it was old news, or only half the story. I felt this was more about the emotional journey of the characters than a chronological narrative.
    I loved it from start to finish but I do I like a piece that calls on the audience do a bit of work too from time to time.
    It was definitely an emotional piece of theatre and worth seeing.
    I've seen a few comments saying it should be made into a film and it did have that feel about it. Not a big Hollywood blockbuster but a quieter, more thoughtful production.


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