REVIEW: The Man and the Donkey, Customs House, South Shields

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A PERCH for seagulls and peppered by paper pellets from children who know no better, the statue to John Simpson Kirkpatrick and his donkey is a familiar-yet-unassuming sight for the thousands who pass it each year.

That was how I began my review to The Man and the Donkey during its first run in 2011, when for many Gallipoli was a Mel Gibson film or a skimmed over section of History A-Level.

It is only now, 100 years on, that the full horrors of that bitter episode are being properly commemorated in Britain.

And with it one of its greatest heroes, Kirkpatrick, who was remembered with full honours in South Shields this week.

The subject of countless, dimly-remembered school assemblies in South Tyneside, a portrait of his life and heroics is portrayed in Valerie Laws’ play, which returned to the Customs House this week as part of tributes to the man known as “the bravest of the brave” who died on the Turkish peninsula on May 19 1915.

Laws’ warm script, soaked in North East culture, historical detail and affable humour, knits together snapshots of Kirkpatrick’s life from his early days in South Shields to his desertion from the merchant navy and recruitment into the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps as a stretcher bearer – allegedly as a way of getting back home.

Laws’ warm script, soaked in North East culture, historical detail and affable humour, knits together snapshots of Kirkpatrick’s life.

Of course the main focus is on his escapades at Gallipoli, where our hero, played here by the admirable Jamie Brown, found a donkey to help him carry the wounded through heavy fire until he was himself gunned down after three weeks of almost round-the-clock rescues.

The script is skilfully brought to life by director Jackie Fielding and a talented cast and creative team, making ingenious use of props and set.

While lacking the budget to create effects we have seen in the likes of War Horse, the incredibly realistic movements of Duffy the donkey – made up of army kit bags and a couple of cast members - are testament to the talent of puppet consultant and creator Alison McGowan.

Similarly impressive are the puppet caricatures of British and Anzac officers, formed from army helmets, brushes and other military paraphernalia.

The simple-yet-effective set with its illuminated backdrop, at times moody blue, at times glowing orange, creates an atmospheric stage accentuating the play’s mixture of moving and explosive scenes.

This is a must-see not just on its theatrical merit, but also as an insight into the life of our hero and his donkey.

•The Man and the Donkey runs until Saturday May 23 2015. Visit www.customshouse.co.uk for more information.