Play honouring South Shields war hero will open on centenary of death

STORY OF COURAGE ... Jamie Brown, centre, in rehearsals to play John Simpson Kirkpatrick with fellow cast members at the Customs House in South Shields.
STORY OF COURAGE ... Jamie Brown, centre, in rehearsals to play John Simpson Kirkpatrick with fellow cast members at the Customs House in South Shields.

A play honouring South Tyneside war hero John Simpson Kirkpatrick is set to open on the 100th anniversary of his death.

The Man And The Donkey will run at the Customs House in Kirkpatrick’s home town of South Shields from Tuesday, May 19, to Saturday, May 23.

The show tells the story of how he joined the Merchant Navy at the age of 17 and headed to Australia, then enlisted to serve with the Australian army as a stretcher-bearer during the First World War.

During the war’s ill-fated Gallipoli campaign in Turkey, Kirkpatrick, with the help of his donkey Duffy, helped rescue wounded soldiers until his death on May 19, 1915.

A statue to Kirkpatrick stands in Ocean Road, South Shields, in memory of his heroism.

The play’s writer, Val Laws, of Whitley Bay, said she came across Kirkpatrick’s story accidentally while visiting Australia.

HERO ... the statue to John Simpson Kirkpatrick in South Shields.

HERO ... the statue to John Simpson Kirkpatrick in South Shields.

She said: “I was travelling in Sydney and visited the war memorial, and when I was looking around, the words South Shields caught my eye.

“There was something in the displays about John Simpson Kirkpatrick, and I thought it was fascinating that someone from South Shields was so well known in Australia.

“I decided to look into his story and found that a lot of people in South Shields didn’t know about him.

“A lot of my plays are about local history and everyday people who have done amazing things.

I thought it was such a shame that people in South Shields didn’t know about this young man and his amazing story, so I decided to write the play.

Val Laws, writer

“People think about those who fought in the First World War as old men, but they weren’t. They were kids.

“I thought it was such a shame that people in South Shields didn’t know about this young man and his amazing story, so I decided to write the play.

“It went down very well the last time it was on, and it’s so special that it’s opening this time on the 100th anniversary of his death.

“He was such a character and a real Jack the lad. He was a typical Tyneside lad who liked a drink and got in a scrap or two, but he did this really amazing thing, and he’s very celebrated in Australia, and he should be here more so.”

Director Jackie Fielding is taking on the play again after first staging it in 2011.

She said: “I was talking to a girl from Australia recently about Kirkpatrick, and she said she could remember being taught about him in school, but she didn’t realise he was English.

“People in Australia are to this day learning about him in school, but people in South Shields aren’t, and he was born here. But it’s not just about the story – it’s a beautiful piece of theatre, and I hope those who missed it last time will come along.”

Tickets for The Man And The Donkey cost £15, with a £14 concession. To book, go to www.
customshouse.co.uk or call the Mill Dam venue on 454 1234.

Twitter: @ShieldsGazVicki