There’s something you need to know before you see Bomb Happy: the wartime stories you’re about to hear are all completely true. If nobody told you that, you’d never believe some of them; perhaps you’d balk at the stranded soldier who walks to safety across the railing of a sunken bridge, or the hackneyed tale of a bullet stopped by a prayer book. But these are real testimonies from real D-Day veterans, faithfully recreated word-for-word by actors, in a powerful and convincing effort to keep this oral history alive.
There are six stories in all – five from veterans and one from a veteran’s wife – which between them, span a telling range of experiences and responses. Some of the men were conscripts, some were volunteers; some landed on D-Day, others were disappointed not to be included in that initial wave. Yet all speak not just of the enduring horrors of war, but also of the fact that – at least at first – it came as an adventure. This is an unfiltered military story, reflecting both highs and lows that those of us who’ve never been there may find difficult to understand.
For my generation at least, the broad narrative is familiar, yet the detail offers insights rarely discussed and perspectives rarely heard. There’s the overwhelming urgency to get off the beaches – almost regardless of the cost. There’s the scant protection offered by a tank, the incongruous quasi-holiday in Denmark, the hard truths about what the Allies sometimes had to do to the French. Most of all, there’s the overlooked reality that D-Day was the start of the battle: the stories and the traumas continue for months afterwards, and in some cases longer than that.
The tales are relayed with the simplest of staging, and the minimum of fuss. Five actors in battle dress face the audience; one speaks, the others listen, perched on crates presumably filled with ammunition or supplies. Occasionally the stories intersect, and there are some telling juxtapositions – as they cross to Normandy, one man captures the excitement, while the other describes the fear. A few physical sequences and lighting effects do break up the pattern; perhaps there’s room for one or two more of these, the better to throw focus on the testimonies in between.
Divorced of its context – viewed solely as a piece of theatre – Bomb Happy wouldn’t quite work. The narratives are too disconnected, the story arcs aren’t entirely satisfying, and questions are raised but never answered. But in a way, that’s exactly the point; this is a slice of truth told from six different perspectives, and it’s as messy and contradictory as real life can be. Context is everything – and on the day I attended, the two ninety-year-old veterans sitting on the front row offered all the context anyone could need.