Author applauds “remarkable” play performance

The author of BBC play Archie Dobson’s War has praised Sydenham High Junior School’s performance of the WW1 centenary tribute as “remarkable” and the production as “stunning.”

Staged by Year 6, the play about a young boy living through the Great War wowed audiences with mature and poignant performances usually associated with much older actors.

Writer Rob John attended the final performance on 21 May with the play’s musical arranger Barry Gibson and BBC School Radio editor Andrew Barnes.

Afterwards, Mr John paid tribute to both the young actors and their teachers, saying: “I was honoured to write the play and it has been a joy to see it being performed all over the UK and in Europe.  However, I doubt any production will come anywhere close to this one.  The skills you showed as a team and individually were remarkable and the production values were stunning. You and your teachers should be so proud of what you have achieved.”

The play, originally written for radio, followed the fate of nine-year old Archie as the war gradually impacts on the lives of his friends and family between 1914 and 1918. With a backdrop of factory work, national conscription and trench warfare, the play blended humour, emotion and historical fact to powerfully highlight the sacrifice made by the millions of men, women and children during WW1.

“Lest we forget: three simple words which we frequently hear in connection with WW1 centenary celebrations and which could not have held greater significance for our young actors and their audiences,” said Claire Boyd, Head of Junior Sydenham High Junior School. “Our production stands as a fitting and moving memorial to the 46 service men and women from Sydenham who lost their lives during the conflict.”

The school approached the play not only as an extra-ordinary theatrical exercise but as full educational experience.  The girls even visited the war graves of Northern France to seek inspiration for the production.

“We saw an opportunity to deliver an in-depth cross-curricular study of the period and at the same time support the GDST value of Girls First,” said Ms Boyd.  The girls worked collaboratively to devise the set, props, sound and lighting as well as compose their own locally focused and female-orientated additions to scenes and the original musical score. Resulting additions included a scene about the Women’s Land Army, a song about Zeppelin attacks on Sydenham and a sequence on how women knitted to help win the war.

The strong creative result attracted attention from the Imperial War Museum who also attended a performance.

Alongside their rehearsals, students also experienced a Make Do & Make-up master class so that they could apply their own and each other’s theatrical make-up.  A Frontline Food cookery workshop gave them a literal taste of WW1 so that they could make trench cake to serve at the play interval. An art, jewellery and artefact workshop also enabled them to make poppy brooches, bracelets and hair slides to sell at the performances in aid of charity War Child.

A surprise star of the show was Winston, a pug puppy, who appeared as Archie’s present from his father on his return from the front at the end of the war.

The play was directed and produced by Year 6 class teacher Cheryl Mitchell-Morgan who, prior to teaching, was a professional theatre director and trained actress at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.  Mrs Mitchell-Morgan was ably supported by fellow Year 6 teacher, Zoe Shippey, and by Head of Junior School Music, Biann Duval.

Sydenham High Headteacher Kathryn Pullen told the girls: “I thought the play was magnificent: funny, moving, informative with really imaginative, with powerful sets and staging. Its enormous success is the result of all your hard work and commitment.  And it was particularly exciting to have the BBC, the play’s authors and representatives from the Imperial War Museum in attendance.  I am really proud of you all.”