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The Man and the Donkey

Published by: Steve Burbridge on 4th Feb 2011 | View all blogs by Steve Burbridge

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The Man and the Donkey

The Customs House, South Shields

As Ray Spencer, Executive Director at The Customs House, points out in the programme notes, in most stories ‘told with the background of war the hero usually takes lives . . . our hero saves lives and eventually gave up his own in the effort to save more.’

The particular hero of The Man and the Donkey is the relatively little-known John Simpson Kirkpatrick. Hailed as a war hero in Australia, he has never been given the same level of recognition in his home town of South Shields. This is something that Valerie Laws sets straight with this affecting drama based upon the short life of Simpson Kirkpatrick, who was killed when he was only 22.

The ninety-minute production spans the shores of South Shields to Shrapnel Gully and chronologically tells the story of his life. Jamie Brown plays the hero with warmth and a genuine likeability. He is ably supported by an ensemble of five (Russell Floyd, James Hedley, Viktoria Kay, Gary Kitching and Jacqueline Phillips) who each play multiple roles with apparent ease and aplomb.

The dual-level set, designed by Simon Henderson, is relatively uncomplicated and there are no superfluous props – if it’s there it earns its place, often rather ingeniously. The stage is beautifully lit with soft shades of red, amber and blue and James Henshaw’s lighting design is magnificently evocative. The sound design, by Chris Allen, incorporates pyrotechnics and original music from Simon Hanson and James McCutcheon.

Director Jackie Fielding uses the short scenes to her advantage, keeping them taut and punchy and the production progresses at a good pace. She opts not to use a real donkey, perhaps for practicalities, and instead provides the most imaginative and effective representation of a donkey possible – I was amazed and impressed.

This production boasts values that are second to none: a talented, hardworking cast, a worthy and compelling story, and a first-class creative team. The Customs House is to be applauded for its commitment to staging productions that tell local stories about local issues performed and produced by local people. With this world premiere of The Man and the Donkey they have cemented their status as one of the best producing houses for miles around.

Steve Burbridge.

Runs until Saturday 12th February 2011.



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