MY BOY JACK
Review by Al Selby
My Boy Jack is a very moving account of the true story of the disappearance of John Kipling, the 18 year-old son of English poet Rudyard Kipling during World War One.
Ben plays the part of John Kipling - actually the title role of Jack. It’s an English custom to call your son Jack when his real name is John! – a sort of nick-name…
The play opens at Bateman’s - the Kipling’s house – the year is 1913. David Haig (Rudyard Kipling) is first on stage, followed closely by Ben. Rudyard is trying to persuade his son not to wear ordinary spectacles but instead to wear a ‘pince-nez’ (pronounced ‘pans ney’) – an old-fashioned style of glasses that sit on the bridge of the nose with no support at the sides. John is not happy about wearing these as they keep falling off! But his father explains that he will make a much better impression when he goes for his army medical. Rudyard tests John with questions he’s likely to be asked at the medical, and each time John answers the pince-nez falls off! This scene between Ben and David is both funny and alarming, as later we are to learn that John’s eyesight is very bad and that ‘he can’t see a thing without them’. John obviously prefers ordinary glasses because he doesn’t have to worry about them falling off, but his father wins and John reluctantly agrees to wear the pince-nez.
At the medical the army officers are impressed that ‘The’ Rudyard Kipling is bringing his son along for routine tests before accepting him into the army, and all goes well until they get to the eyesight test. When John is asked to remove his glasses and read the top line of large letters on the board - which is hanging on the opposite wall to where he’s standing - he says he can’t see anything. The officer – Major Sparks (Chris Moran) - suggests that he walk towards the board and to stop when he reaches the point when he can read the top line. John starts to walk closer to the board and to everyone’s amazement he doesn’t stop until he is only about one yard (one metre) away! John is relieved that he can at last read the top line and eagerly asks if he should continue reading the other lines of smaller letters, but the officer stops him and it’s clear that he’s failed the test.
After much argument between John’s father and the army officers he finally accepts that his son can’t join the army, but they leave with Rudyard promising John that they won’t give up – that there must be another way.
It’s later that day and John is angry and embarrassed at what has happened. As he enters the room he’s talking to himself and doesn’t realise that his sister Elsie (Rosanna Lavelle) is sitting there. After more mutterings he turns and is surprised to see her and is a little upset that she didn’t let him know she was there! She’s forgiven and they talk about John wanting to join the army. She absolutely doesn’t want him to go and tells him so in no uncertain terms! John moves to a bookshelf, and, after removing three small books he takes out a packet of cigarettes that he’d hidden there. Opening the packet he takes one out and lights it. It’s now that John explains that he doesn’t really want to join but that he needs to get away from ‘this house and everything’ – that he can’t stand the boredom, frustration and expectation any longer.
Elsie is upset that John wants to leave her and he’s quick to say “oh Bird, (his nick-name for her) not you, my best-beloved sister” But he explains that he has to get away from their father and mother before he goes mad, and that he sees joining the army as a way out. “Do you want a drink?” he asks her – “whisky?” She says “yes” and as they bring their glasses together for a toast they hear their father coming towards the room calling out for Elsie. She quickly says to John “don’t let him know I’m here” and she hides under the table!
When his father enters the room John tells him that he’s going to join the army by enlisting as a private and not an officer as his father is determined he will be. Rudyard tells John to be patient and that they’ll find another way to get him into the army as an officer. All this time Elsie has heard what has been said and is even more angry with John. When their father leaves the room for bed she comes out from under the table and tells him so!
It’s some time later and we see Rudyard Kipling addressing a large crowd – he is giving a recruitment speech telling the people all the reasons he believes that Britain should be at war with Germany. From the crowd’s applause at the end he seems to have won them over.
Some weeks pass and John’s mother, Carrie (Belinda Lang), is looking out of the window waiting for John to return to the house. When he arrives he is dressed in full army officer’s uniform. Joy all round – well, almost - as mother and father greet John, but no joy from Elsie – she wants to know how John is now able to join the army after failing the eyesight test so badly? What strings have been pulled to get him in?! It seems that an old friend was persuaded – on his deathbed - to give the go-ahead for John to join!
After a remarkably quick change of set on stage we are now at the Western Front and in the trenches with the Battalion of the Irish Guards. John Kipling (Ben) is the commanding officer. The sound-effects of shells firing and landing nearby – often too close for comfort – gives us the feeling of actually being there with the soldiers. It’s raining hard and has been for days - everyone is soaked. The feeling of utter despair and being so very frightened really comes across. John is getting his men to check their feet – with all the rain and standing around for days in water and mud, there is a very real possibility that trench foot and gangrene will set in. He knows how important it is to keep the feet dry and he gets the men to check each other’s feet – one soldier refuses to take off his boots and John wonders what he’s trying to hide?
The order to go over the top and charge into and take Chalk Pit Wood is received and John tells his men they will go in five minutes. The panic that takes hold of all the men is devastating - as well as their rifles and full kit they each have to carry a basket with a pigeon in it, and when they get to the woods they release them and the birds will fly home. This will be the signal that the operation was successful. John turns to face the audience and the only light is now shining on him. He’s telling himself what he must do and that he must not let his men or himself down – or indeed his family; his father… He practices in his mind the steps he’ll take up the ladder, climbing over the top, and running for all he’s worth to get to the woods. He says it over and over again, and finally asks quietly: Will I let my men down? Will I let myself down? – no, I mustn’t, he says. Will I die?
For me, this is Ben’s most moving part in the play.
John looks at his watch – it’s time, and he blows his whistle. Everyone climbs their ladder and goes over the top amid screams of fear and panic…
The lights dim, and the curtain falls.
We’re now back at Bateman’s – the Kipling’s home – and Rudyard is holding a small light-brown envelope. He hesitates, not wanting to open it in case the letter inside confirms his worst fears. He can’t do it and places the envelope on the table. He then starts to read a poem he’s written out loud. After several lines he calls to Carrie to come and listen – he wants her advice. When Carries comes into the room he reads the same lines again to her – he wants to know if he should change anything. She says she won’t be any help but he insists and she eventually makes two suggestions. The first he accepts but the second – the last line - he rejects, saying: ‘No, that line is absolutely correct!’
Carrie leaves the room and Rudyard looks again at the envelope. At last he summons up the courage to open it, hardly daring to look. “No, no, no, no, no” he shouts, “Please, if there is a God, let Jack live” He calls for Carrie and when she comes back into the room she looks very frightened. He asks her to sit down. She sees the letter he’s holding and suddenly realises what’s happened – she screams “No!” Rudyard tries to comfort her by saying that the letter says he’s ‘missing, believed wounded’. He tells her that Jack may not be seriously hurt, that he’s probably already strolled back into headquarters. But Carrie is inconsolable – she starts to blame Rudyard for pushing Jack to go to war. That he should have stopped him. Rudyard tells her that all Jack’s friends are at war in France, and that if their son had stayed at home he would have had to suffer the hostility of family friends and neighbours, that he – they - could not have coped with the shame.
Elsie enters the room. She sees her parents are angry with each other – Rudyard tells her that Jack is missing, believed wounded. She says nothing for a while. “He’ll come home then won’t he? – He’ll be fine…” she says at last - not believing herself for a moment.
She says to them: “don’t you realise that Jack didn’t go to war out of any pride of country or family - but that he couldn’t wait to get away from you”. They are both astounded. They can’t believe it’s true. Elsie starts to cry. Carrie and Rudyard can say nothing; they all sit in silence except for Elsie’s sobs…
We now go briefly back in time to when John is seven years old. Elsie, Rudyard and John are sitting in the dark on the drawing room floor close together, with a blanket covering them up to their shoulders. Rudyard switches on the torch he is holding. Elsie and John have torches too. They are playing a game of finding star constellations by shining their torches onto the ceiling! Elsie says “I wanted to sleep outdoors” – and, trying to bring her into the game John and he are playing, Rudyard tells her that it’s much more fun camping indoors! After they’ve played the game for a while he starts to tell them a story. It’s called ‘The Grand Trunk Road’ – they seem interested but John is very tired, and soon he is asleep. His father realises this and finishes the story. Elsie asks her father what will become of her? He tells her that she will marry, have five children – two boys and three girls – and settle in her home with her husband only a few miles from Bateman’s! He says she and her family will be able to visit and have tea with her mother and father!
It’s now two years after John was declared ‘missing, believed wounded’ During this time Rudyard has interviewed hundreds of soldiers from the Irish Guards in the hopes that one of them will know something of the fate of his son. Carrie comes into the room excited with the news that someone may have seen John briefly two years ago. Rudyard is not convinced. She starts to look through the list of soldiers for a name but can’t find it. Rudyard is getting angry that his wife should be wasting time on such flimsy evidence. They argue.
Elsie enters the room to tell them that a ‘Mr Frankland’ (Fred Ridgeway) is here to see her father. He is not an Irish Guard himself, but he has brought a soldier with him who has something to tell them about their son. They are still angry with each other and as they try to decide whether or not to see the soldier, Rudyard says aloud: “I need a cigarette!” He searches for them but Carrie tells him that she’s thrown them away. Suddenly he remembers where John used to hide his cigarettes and goes to look on the shelf, behind some books. Yes! they are there. He tells Carrie that they are John’s and as he opens the packet she asks to see it. As she holds the old packet of cigarette’s suddenly she feels very close to John – he was the last to hold the packet. A very moving moment.
They agree to see the soldier in the hopes that they will find out – at long last – the truth about John. Elsie goes to fetch Mr Frankland and the soldier. They enter the room and Mr Frankland introduces Guardsman Bowe (Simon Wolfe). He is very distressed and gasping for breath because in France he was caught up in poisonous gas. A window is opened and he calms down as he breathes fresh air. Rudyard asks him to sit down and tell them what he knows. The soldier’s memory isn’t good – he can’t remember the names of all of the men in his company. But with much coaxing it becomes clear that John was indeed Guardsman Bowe’s commanding officer. He begins to tell them about the terrible things that happened in France. Rudyard is eager to know about John and tries to steer the soldier’s memory of that day to his son. But he starts rambling again, telling of one soldier ‘just standing there – with no head…’ Eventually Bowe remembers what happened to John and begins a terrifying and extremely moving account: “Well sir” he says, “We went over the top and would you believe it, we saw soldiers playing football! That’s how mad it was over there! We ran, and ran and managed to get to the first stage without too much trouble. Again the lieutenant (John) blew his whistle and we were running for the woods again. Someone said the lieutenant was hurt so I went back to see and when I found him I couldn’t believe what I saw. All of his lower jaw was missing – shot away - and he was crying with the pain…” “Did you help him?” Rudyard asks. The soldier is reluctant so say any more and stands quickly and says he should leave, and that he should never have come here. Mr Frankland stops him, and persuades him to go on. “Well sir, I didn’t think the lieutenant would want me to see him like that – me not being an officer and that. It wouldn’t be right would it? I mean, he was an officer, and he wouldn’t have wanted anyone to see him like that…” “So you didn’t help him?” Rudyard asks. “No sir, I didn’t. I started to walk away and I’d only got about fifteen yards away when there was a big explosion behind me. I looked back, and where the lieutenant had been standing there was just a big hole…” They are all stunned.
Bowe’s recounting the story of John’s last minutes is one of the most moving parts of the play.
When Bowe has finished Elsie leads him and Mr Frankland from the room. There is a long silence as what he has told them sinks in. Eventually Carrie moves to leave the room but Rudyard begs her to stay. She stays but doesn’t want to talk. He starts to try to justify what happened to John, even going so far as to suggest that John was happy to be there. Carrie wants to know how long he was in pain: five minutes, ten minutes, half-an-hour? No, not that long, five minutes at the most Rudyard tells her. The body would have been in shock – he was lucky really! Carrie can’t believe that he’s saying John was lucky.
They go on arguing – Rudyard justifying; Carrie blaming. Eventually Carrie gets up and tries to leave the room but Rudyard blocks her way. He grabs onto her arms and insists that she stay so that they can talk and somehow make sense of what has happened. She has no choice but to stay – he is too strong for her. This scene is heartbreaking. Finally Rudyard says: “do you want me to go down on my knees and say that I murdered our son? – do you think a single day passes when I don’t consider that possibility?”
After a long silence Carrie says quietly: “But I miss him”
Another long silence and Rudyard says: “So – do – I” He breaks down and cries.
We move forward in time several years to 1924 and Elsie and Carrie are standing in the study – Elsie has her wedding dress on and Carrie is trying to find where a button that’s fallen off should go. They both look very happy. They are talking about the place Elsie and her husband-to-be will live: Biarritz. Rudyard joins them and sees his daughter in the dress for the first time. Carrie asks him if he likes it and he says, “oh yes, splendid!” Carrie leaves the room and Rudyard tells Elsie that she’s made her mother’s eyes dance again. They talk about her journey to Biarritz and he says that if there’s any furniture here at Bateman’s that she wants he’ll get it shipped over to her! Elsie apologises for moving away but says that at least it’s not as far as Africa or India. He says to her, don’t worry, we’ll be fine.
It’s 1933 and Carrie and Rudyard – much older now - are sitting listening to the radio. The BBC newsreader is announcing that Adolf Hitler has been appointed Chancellor of Germany, and that his political party will become the largest group in the new Reichstag. Germany is triumphant.
Rudyard slumps back in his chair and utters the words: ‘for nothing, for nothing, for nothing’. He is beaten, for he knows – and has been tirelessly warning - that Britain will soon be at war with Germany again.
They sit in silence.
Rudyard then recites one of his poems:
Have you news of my boy Jack?
Not this tide.
When d’you think that he’ll come back?
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.
Has any one else had word of him?
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.
Oh dear, what comfort can I find?
None this tide
Nor any tide
Except he did not shame his kind –
Not even with that wind blowing and that tide.
Then hold your head up all the more
And every tide,
Because he was the son you bore
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide.
The lights dim for the last time, and the curtain falls.
John Kipling died: 1915
Rudyard Kipling died: 1936
Carrie Kipling died: 1939
Elsie Kipling died: 1976
So, from the early comical exchanges with his father about the ‘spectacles’ - pince-nez - which balance uneasily on Ben’s/Jack’s/John’s (!) nose, and which keep falling off! - through the frustration of being turned down for the army - to the very real and frightening situation he finds himself in when he finally gets to the trenches, and the consequences for his heartbroken family, this is John’s short life. This is an excellent play – see it if you can.
From the after-show talk with the audience it was clear that the cast get on very well with each other and enjoy working together, and this shows through in the play.
The only downside to this great play is that Ben doesn’t appear in the second half, after the interval – but don’t let that put you off, it’s still well worth seeing!
Obviously this is my own personal view of the play as I remember it, and I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!
PS: by-the-way, for all true fan’s of Ben – if you can get to see the play there’s a real bonus in store for you – and believe me, it’s lovely!