The British Empire feels like an octopus, its tentacles stretching out across the globe and touching all continents, everything feeding back into the main body at the centre. Porcelain from China; tea from India; foodstuffs from the West Indies, all passing through Britain for the upper classes to cream the profits off the top. But when a World War hits, the tentacles require people, blood is sacrificed to help support the war effort. There are hundreds of thousands of deaths across the empire, from dozens of nationalities. Towards the end of Patricia Cumper’s powerfully evocative Chigger Foot Boys, Rhodes scholar and Oxford law graduate Norman Manley (Jonathan Chambers) reflects in his halls of residence on the pointlessness of it all, remembering dead brother Roy (John Leader) who perished in a trench as part of the war effort. Jump back to a night in a rum shack before it all began, a competitive game of dominoes between four men creates a nostalgia that the audience feel throughout Irina Brown’s production.

The uncontested star of this show is rum shack owner Medora (Suzette Llewellyn), a gutsy and stoic woman who fights for everything she gets. The shack may not be much, but it’s her pride and joy. Adulterous lover Linton (Stanley J. Browne) cuts a striking figure in his army uniform, whispering sweet nothings in her ear whilst sinking the white rum. Across the bar, a young naïve country boy experiences life in Kingston with a sarsaparilla and a Winchester shotgun – Mortie (Ike Bennett) appears out of his depth but is energetic, eager and brought up to respect women. No surprise then that Mortie and Linton lock horns on more than one occasion. Add in the Manley brothers to the mix, celebrating Norman’s last night before he sails to England to study at Oxford and the unlikely gang is complete, drinking and arguing and competing throughout the tropical storm into the wee hours of the morning. Each time Cumper’s script flashes back to this night it feels like a comfortable pair of old slippers, a bit worn and tatty but heart-warming and humble. This is the tangible connection that remains amidst the madness of the war swirling all around. The to-ing and fro-ing between time periods is perfectly punctuated with war songs, rhythmic accompaniments banged out on wooden crates that contribute to Louis Price’s design concepts of humility, simplicity and poignancy.

As the years flick back and forth, glimpses of each character reveal themselves. Mortie grows up, grows in confidence yet ultimately can’t accept the maltreatment he faces because of the colour of his skin. Bennett’s performance reflects Mortie’s disposition: nervous and unsure at first (lines are frequently tripped over) but growing as the show progresses and he grounds himself in the character. Contrast with Linton, and old school soul that exudes bravado and machismo covering a softness that he is reticent to express. Cumper creates tender moments between Linton and Medora, the heartache of unspoken love evident in the sparkling eyes of both actors – no gushing declarations, no platitudes, but brutal honesty, a love that is painful to express and magnetic to watch.

Chigger Foot Boys emphasises the madness of the war with the stalwart constant of Medora (Llewellyn) and her Jamaican rum shack. Like its central actor, the show is powerful, layered and tinged with sadness. Millions of people died in this terrible conflict and all too often the individual lives, loves and losses are forgotten. Cumper gives us all a glimpse of a country thousands of miles away but forever affected by such a global terror.

Chigger Foot Boys is playing Tara Arts until March 11.

Photo: Richard Hubert Smith