Chorus Girl – POWs 19

In Chungkai camp over the period late 1944 to early 1945 there were some highlights in the POWs lives, in particular the theatre provided not only distraction but some lifelong happy memories. Barry remembers:

In the summer of 1944, one of the Dutch POWs started a concert party and built a small stage. I was co-opted into the early productions as a stage carpenter and odd job man. Later on a fine new theatre for plays was built and used by several different groups of producers. As a small slim, handsome young man and a good dancer, my true potential as a chorus girl and romantic actress were eventually recognised. Most of the shows were mixed variety concerts with a line of chorus girls.

Cast includes Bob Garrod & Barry (Custance Baker)

Cast includes Bob Garrod & Barry (Custance Baker)

Leo Britt, a Corporal in the RASC, put on a number of straight plays in which I had minor parts. Leo was very strict with us ‘girls’. Report to the theatre after first rice and from then on wear skirts and high heels to become used to moving like a woman. Some of us became anxious that we might possibly be becoming ‘too too’ girlish, and to prevent this we kept a stock of barbells and weight bars (bamboo and logs) behind the stage, which we could lift from time to time as an assurance that our manly muscles were still there.

The parts for the plays were either copied out from books, which we happened to have in the camp, or more often written down by someone who knew the play well from having acted in it or produced it before the war. In my best scene (in Hay Fever), twisting around on a very hard bamboo sofa with the host, I was often worried that our kisses might cause giggles or rude comment, but we got away with it and the host, Leo himself, once whispered to me, “They’re taking it OK, do it just once more”. So we did, and the Japs who came every night and sat in the front row just loved it.

A small part with Dickie Lucas, the main leading lady at the time in a Café Colette show has given me my best-loved anecdote. We did a dance routine to the tune of “Yam” a popular song of the thirties. We danced separately and then as a pair, finally in the chorus line. When walking back to my hut after the show I overheard two soldiers, one of whom I knew, discussing the show. “Those two fucking tarts, they were more like real fucking tarts than any fucking tarts I’ve ever met”. My best theatre crit.

Other members of Barry’s original unit, 27 Line Section, who fetched up in Chungkai, were also stars of the stage. His lieutenant Bob Garrod acted in a very successful production of “Night Must Fall” in June 1944.

Night Must Fall  Chungkai Theatre

Night Must Fall Chungkai Theatre

Meanwhile another member of the unit, Reg Hannam, was still on the railway driving lorries on maintenance work and in spite of this also performing regularly. His son (also Reg Hannam) found concert programmes for shows in Brankassi Camp at 208 km up the line. There was clearly a flourishing cabaret act in which Hannam and his friends performed to entertain their mates.

Reg Hannam in Love Thais

Reg Hannam in Love Thais

It is difficult to overestimate the morale-boosting effects of theatrical performances. The enthusiasm and dedication of those who performed were crucial to the survival of many of their fellow POWs. How much these events mattered can be seen by the fact that such fragile mementoes were preserved.

The cast of Love Thais

The cast of Love Thais

Unforgettable Macbeth

I didn’t have a category for theatre, but our experience two days ago requires its own category. We saw an ‘encore’ of the live performance of Macbeth relayed to the cinema from a deconsecrated church in Manchester and starring Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston.

The stage was the central aisle and the apse of the church. The floor of the body of the church was a muddy heath and the sides were wooden hoardings, with the audience raised and confined behind them (I was reminded of the barreras in a bullfight). Witches appeared from windows and doors let into a wooden screen at one end. At the other, the apse (with a hard floor), was an oasis of calm lined with banks of candles and the stained glass windows soaring above.

The action, hemmed in by the hoardings on that narrow stage, on the mud, gave us ambition, love, power, anger, despair and spiritual agony. The noise of men and arms rebounding off the wooden sides created a real sense of physical effort and danger in the battle scenes. Emotions seemed heightened by being confined and channeled by the spaces.

The comic elements and the witches were introduced without destroying the tension. Every word was audible every line comprehensible, casting brilliant. The whole was potent and compelling beyond any production of Macbeth I have ever seen.

This was a short run for the Manchester Festival only, but I understand that the live recording will be going out internationally in cinemas in October. See it.

jet-lagged from Chicago

I am planning a blog reassessment, but first I will put up some posts of various things on my mind.

Chicago has totally charmed me. We stayed on the North Side and all the streets were full of an explosion of spring into summer; narcissi, tulips, maples in leaf, cherry blossom, hostas everywhere. The sidewalks often have cultivated strips beside them, all individually designed by the house owners.

The number of theatres is quite astonishing. We saw three excellent productions in three different theatres (two directed by Elly Green), we listened to a (free) string/clarinet lunchtime concert in the beautiful Culture Centre. We saw a superb exhibition in the Museum of Contemporary Art – Destroy the Picture – the anger and innovation made visible in post WWII ‘paintings’. The Smart Museum of Art had an astonishing collection (and a foyer with people of all ages having a go at producing a Rothko painting).

The highlight was being caught and soaked by the high canon of water from the Buckingham fountain in Grant Park and then drying off within about 15 minutes in the sunlight and warm wind.


Our first and only baseball match (to date) saw The Cubs win. Altogether a visit of enormous entertainment and happiness.


Happy family – again!

After the success of The Tomkat Project, the latest play directed by Elly has had a four star review in Time Out in Chicago. 
We are such proud and happy parents, knowing the work that has gone into this.