CHESTER’S museums have provided invaluable information for a new play.
Playwright Helen Newall, the author of Silent Night for the city’s Theatre in the Quarter company, has spent weeks in The Grosvenor Museum, the Cheshire Military Museum and the Chester History and Heritage Centre researching the impact of the First World War on Chester people. This year is the 90th anniversary of the end of the Great War.
The play, which will be performed in and around Chester in November and December, centres on four fictional characters from the city who travel to the frontline to fight for their country. They end up involved in the renowned Christmas truce when British and German soldiers laid down their arms for a festive game of football and some carol singing. Musical director of the play is Matt Baker, who composed the music for the 2008 Chester Mystery Plays.
Helen, a reader in Performing Arts at Edge Hill University, said: “We have a real sense of the Second World War from talking to people who lived through it but it is different with the First World War.
We have to rely for the most part on written evidence and people’s accounts of the time.”
One of the highlights of Helen’s research was the opportunity to read a diary from a soldier in the 6th Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment, who was part of the Christmas truce.
The diary of Lieutenant Charles Brockbank is at the Cheshire Military Museum at the Castle.
“It’s amazing to read the original thoughts and feelings of someone who was there. You end up getting emotionally involved and I was so pleased to discover that Lt Brockbank survived.
Helen, who lives in Formby, also walked through the museum’s trench.
“You can just imagine the claustrophobia – all the time I was walking on the solid floor imagining what it would be like to be knee deep in water.”
She also discovered some of the more light-hearted aspects of life during the Great War.
“I saw pictures of men in drag performing amateur dramatics and there are accounts of soldiers getting together for a game of tennis.”
Helen found a 1920s account of the effect of the war on Chester people written by F W Longbottom at the Chester History and Heritage Centre.
“Mr Longbottom writes that, after the war, he notices more equality between rich and poor and more freedom for women,” said Helen.
One exhibit Helen was unable to see was originally handed in to the Grosvenor Museum.
“They have an acquisitions log and someone once handed in a piece of a sandwich which was found on the burning body of a Zeppelin commander whose plane had crashed in England.”
According to Helen’s research, soldiers from the Cheshire regiment were some of the first people helped by Edith Cavell to escape German-occupied Belgium. Also when war broke MP for Chester, Mr Robert Yerburgh, and his wife were trapped in Bad Nauheim, a health spa in Germany.
After nine weeks detention, “through the friendly intervention of the Vice Consul Ives of the United States Consular services, based in Frankfurt”, Mr Yerburgh and his wife were released and returned to England.
This is not the first play that Helen has written for Theatre in the Quarter. She also wrote Some Sunny Day, the company’s first sell-out production in 2005, Sweet Sixteen and Twelve Days of Christmas. She has also written for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, HTV in Bristol and Cheshire Youth Theatre.