REVIEW: Tom recreates life and death of local WW1 soldier from Newtownabbey

Jane Hardy

ON the day that we commemorated the centenary of the bloodiest battle of modern times, the battle of the Somme, it was moving and chastening to attend Philip Johnston's dramatised account of the life and early death of Newtownabbey boy, Tom McKinney. Tom recreated the young private's existence and his final days from injuries incurred on the first day of the conflict.

Apparently, July 1 1916 was a beautiful summer's day and after reaching the Theatre at the Mill via rainbow weather, we got a tiny sense of the reality of this war. The audience coughed at the theatrical smoke, nothing like the crippling mustard gas around the trenches at the time, and we heard the sound of the big guns.

There is something peculiarly affecting about the voices of the WW1 soldiers writing letters home. Johnston has used a family archive of letters and photos to recreate an unselfconscious era. The four performers - excellent Amanda Doherty, Chris Mohan (who should have cut off his man-bun), Cathan McRoberts and Siobhan Kelly - echoed the 'Affectionately yours' of family members signing off at the start. This was affecting, particularly as we know McKinney only lived to be 23.

We jumped between McKinney's early, idyllic years on the spacious farm and family home at Sentry Hill to his signing up, his time in the trenches and on leave. Johnston opted for a jittery narrative arc which worked ok but maybe was not as powerful as straightforward chronology would have been.

But we got a real sense of Tom - or Mac's, to use his nickname - life evolving. He hung out in time off with an irrepressible friend, drinking and thinking of girls of the future. He had a deep relationship with his older sister Elsie and their scenes picturing a future that couldn't happen were poignant. So too was Elsie's outburst as she realized the futility of this war. Dulce et Decorum est pro Patri Mori? Of course not, if you read Wilfred Owen on the subject.

McKinney's young life had of course already been touched by history. We skedaddled successfully through the signing of the Ulster Covenant and the thorny question of Home Rule. We heard the painful letters documenting Tom's decline as a piece of metal from a shell pierced his hip and turned septic. A nurse wrote to his widowed father, John, saying he was deteriorating and they should write daily as "he always loves to hear from home".

The refrain "I will turn home" was a bleak untruth. Not quite as brilliant as the final WW1 scene in Blackadder, nonetheless we went over the top with this joint production from the Theatre at The Mill and The Amoory Theatre Company. They took us right back to the point at which Europe collapsed, and needed healing.

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