A new musical based on the life and work of the First World War poet Wilfred Owen is due to get its London debut run at the Tristan Bates Theatre. Bullets and Daffodils has an intriguing production team which includes director Christopher Timothy (James Herriot in TV’s All Creatures Great and Small), musical director Graeme Clarke (former band member of Wet Wet Wet) and Mark Reed (son of the late great Oliver Reed) who provides narration. There’s even a musical contribution from Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour.
This eclectic team has been brought together by the show’s creator, ‘Merseyside’s self-styled troubadour’ Dean Johnson. He has had a long career as a rock musician but Bullets and Daffodils is his first venture into musical theatre. It’s proved to be a rewarding change.
“The audiences are very discerning and the feedback has been amazing. The rock world seems to me now very cliched and, in a way, like cheap entertainment. I was always searching for a certain type of audience and with Bullets and Daffodils I have found it.”
His passion for bringing the works of Wilfred Owen to a new audience is a very personal one. Growing up in Birkenhead he attended Owen’s old school, although it wasn’t until later that he came to appreciate the influence this would have on his life.
“It was only when I became a songwriter and turned my gaze to social and political issues that Owen’s legacy and the connection to my formative years became apparent. His words were honest to the point of brutal but yet still poetic and in some ways beautiful. Everything that a good song lyric should be.”
Johnson first wrote Bullets and Daffodils as a concept album with a mixture of original songs and musical settings of Owen’s best-known poems. ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ is set to a driving guitar to underline the descriptions of the sounds of war (“Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle”). In ‘Conscious’, a poem about a soldier lying in a hospital bed, the musical repeats of the patient’s cries (“Nurse! Doctor!”) bring out the drama in the words.
The album was then developed into a stage musical by adding narrative passages and characters from Owen’s life. In the latest production the story is told through the eyes of Owen’s bereaved mother Susan (played by Chloe Torpey). Johnson has always been keen to avoid the “Pathe news version of the Great War” and the production team have developed some innovative approaches.
“We have a choreographer (Charlotte Roberts) who has found a brilliant way of illustrating Owen’s words. It’s not dance because that would not be appropriate, but it is a physical manifestation of the words. We call it body poetry and I don’t think the like has ever been seen before. In one scene it appears that Charlotte has lost limbs and it does seem as if she has. It’s devastating.”
And it’s timely. Next year will mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. The harrowing and compassionate words of Owen, who served as a soldier and was killed a few days before the end of the war, are sure to play a large part in the commemorations. Johnson and his team will be well placed to present Owen’s legacy to a modern audience.
Bullets & Daffodils. Wilfred Owen: A Voice Reborn runs at the Tristan Bates Theatre from 1st-6th July