“We were chosen because we think like Englishmen”
At a moment in British history when the political discourse around the contribution of (at least part of) the immigrant population has never been more highly charged, Patricia Cumper’s Chigger Foot Boys could not be more timely. A largely unheralded part of the British Army in the First World War were the 15,600 men who formed the British West Indies Regiment, volunteers from British colonies who provided invaluable service and yet received despicable treatment.
Cumper is far too canny a writer to make her play – based on meticulous research and inspired by real events – that didactic though. The consequences of colonial attitudes and their prejudices are implicit, threaded through every heartbeat of her five fictional characters but never the sole focus, complicated as they are by the intersection of so many other things like cruel twists of fate and the full spectrum of human nature from its self-sabotaging worst to its soul-searching best, to create the rich fabric of their own narratives.
We meet the five in a dockside rum bar in Kingston, Jamaica where they’re waiting out a mighty thunderstorm. It is 1914 and even in this outpost of the British Empire, the chat can’t help but turn to the war involving the “motherland”. One’s a soldier, two are middle-class academics and brothers and then there’s Mortie, the “chigger foot boy” of the title, a lad from a poor village who overhears of the opportunity to use his sharp-shooting skills, little realising what the army demands from those on the lowest of its rungs.
Irina Brown’s clear-sighted direction handles the time-shifting storytelling well – we constantly flash-forward to discover their varying fates throughout the Great War – and uses the fifth member of the group, bar-owner Medora to root it in a place of appalled sincerity and growing anger. Dominique Le Gendre’s music enhances the mood no end, Louis Price’s design reminds us of that colonial history, and there’s some sparkling performances, particularly from professional debutant Ike Bennett as the principled Mortie, Stanley J Browne’s brash corporal and Suzette Llewellyn’s political-activist-in-the-making Medora.
A worthwhile reminder that as we commemorate the First World War, it was indeed a world war and that it was by coming together that victory was achieved. We’re a better nation – hell we’re all better nations! – when we remember, and recognise, the spirit of collaboration.