Everwitch Theatre present Bomb Happy D-Day 80, Hank & Smudger’s Stories at Shepherds Hall, Lealholm, tonight

George Stagnell, playing D-Day veteran Dennis “Hank” Haydock, in a scene from In The Footsteps Of Hank Haydock: A Walk In The Park, filmed in Duncombe Park woodland

EVERWITCH Theatre will stage Bomb Happy D-Day 80: Hank & Smudger’s Stories, an evening of film and wartime spoken word, for a second time tonight.

First presented at Helmsley Arts Centre on June 1 in the lead-up to the 80th anniversary commemorations in Normandy, France, on June 6, In The Footsteps Of Hank Haydock: A Walk In The Park and Sleep/Re-live/Wake/Repeat will be presented at Shepherds Hall, Lealholm, near Whitby, at 7pm when a full house will attend.  

Looking ahead, Everwitch writer and director Helena Fox says: “After putting on the Helmsley and Shepherds Hall performances as our preview showings, we’re in the process of planning a tour next year to venues in the North to commemorate VE Day 80.

“We anticipate from the interest shown so far for these to include atmospheric non-arts venues, for example, historic Bamburgh Castle and the Second World War-themed  Eden Camp Modern History Museum. The film is being entered into international festivals too.”

The premiere at Helmsley Arts Centre drew a full house too, including York actor George Stagnell, making a quiet entrance after travelling up from his London home to watch his film role.

He had first appeared in the 2017 tour of Helena Fox’s Bomb Happy, a play inspired by the playwright’s conversations in 2016 with Yorkshire Normandy veterans. She had since returned to those conversations to create two new pieces for the 80th anniversary, opening the Helmsley show with Sleep/Re-live/Wake/Repeat, a live performance of verbatim spoken word and nostalgic a cappella song, presented by Fox in tandem with singer Natasha Jones.

They brought to life anew the first-hand accounts of D-Day veteran Private Ken “Smudger” Smith, from Armley, Leeds, those words echoing down the years as they charted the lifelong impact of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and sleep trauma.  

The first showing of black-and-white images from Ken Smith’s personal photo collection that followed his journey during an equally traumatic time in the Middle East after victory in Europe made Smith’s observations all the more resonant. Can a soldier ever find peace after the atrocities of war?

There followed, for that one night only, a new short story of an act of reconciliation for the 80th anniversary of D-Day: Our Mum, Our Dad, And A Door Handle, written and performed by Dorothy Bilton, daughter of Bomb Happy D-Day veteran Bert Barritt, whose experiences had featured in Bomb Happy.

Helena Fox, left, and Natasha Jones

George Stagnell had played Private Ken “Cookey” Cooke, from York, in Fox’s play. Cookey, the last of the Bomb Happy veterans still alive, had hoped to make the Helmsley performance, but in the end his energies were poured into attending the D-Day commemorations, where his television interviews were as poignant and lucid as ever.

For In the Footsteps Of Hank Haydock: A Walk In The Park, he switched to Guardsman Dennis “Hank” Haydock, conscripted at 18 from Sheffield to serve as a Sherman tank gunner in the 2nd Battalion of the Coldstream Guards.

Written and directed by Fox, her debut 30-minute film was shot by Jay Sillence of York company InkBlot Films on location in the woodland of Duncombe Park, near Helmsley, in July 2022. On the hottest day of the year. Pretty much in one continuous take, re-takes kept to a minimum with film stock running low.

Stagnell has previous form for wartime memoir, performing a remarkable one-man adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful at the John Cooper Studio, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York in March 2017 and later at the Edinburgh Fringe.  Next came Bomb Happy and later, in 2021, a performance piece about Hank Haydock at Duncombe Park, where the young conscript had trained.

Stagnell is not an experienced film actor, but he has the attributes of stillness, presence, focus, in his understated yet weighted performance, allied to a mellifluous voice and mesmeric eyes, made for the big screen.

He looks the period part too, and he serves the words of Hank Haydock wonderfully well, especially when filmed in close up, as well as when striding through the woodland, looking skywards, as rueful as truthful in his demeanour.  

As Robert Laurence Binyan wrote in his poem For The Fallen, published in The Times on September 21 1914, “At the going down of the sun and in the morning/We will remember them.” Now, the archivist works of Helena Fox, the profound performance of George Stagnell, will do likewise in honouring those that served, ensuring their words, their foreboding, yet their camaraderie too, shall live on.  

Everwitch Theatre, Bomb Happy D-Day 80, Hank & Smudger’s Stories, Shepherds Hall, Lealholm, near Whitby, 7pm. For returns only: 01947 897011. All the Shepherds Hall hosting fee will be donated to the Royal British Legion.