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A Thousand Sons at the Etcetera Theatre

A Thousand Sons begins by taking the audience back to 1945, which almost immediately made me steel myself for yet another dramatized account of World War Two. But its consideration of wartime events is brief, talking specifically about the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is, I suppose, relatively common knowledge (and so I don’t consider this a spoiler), though I don’t recall school history textbooks referring to ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’, the codenames for the two types of atomic bombs developed by the Manhattan Project.

A Thousand Sons at the Etcetera TheatreThe narrative is about Bertrand Cooper (Jamie Sefton), known to his friends and fellow soldiers as Bertie – the character is not an actual military veteran, but the play is based on actual events. Accordingly, details of Bertie’s upbringing are sparse, but there is plenty of detail about the military operations that took place in the late 1950s on Christmas Island. Thousands of British military personnel were posted to various islands in the Pacific Ocean to participate in tests for the development of the British hydrogen bomb programme.

The production is heavy on exposition, which is fair enough: whatever the show’s budget, replicating the testing of nuclear weapons is simply not feasible. The account is, as one might reasonably imagine, harrowing and grim. But the testing itself and the extensive clean-up operations are only a foretaste of the battles to come. Despite there not being many veterans who served in that era still alive, the fight for the British Government to recognise the wrongs committed, and for compensation to be paid, continues.

There is some comic relief, though it comes early in proceedings, through banter between members of staff on the military base (not all were soldiers, with a large number of engineers and technicians involved). The implications of being exposed to nuclear bombs, even from a distance, may not have been known at the time (though Bertie asserts the powers that be must have known something), and the long-term effects were not made public for decades thanks to the Ministry of Defence invoking the Official Secrets Act.

Bertie’s family life then takes centre stage in what had already been a very personal story – the OSA, it appears, worked both ways, and there were things he wasn’t told about that would have made a significant difference to the rest of his life if only he’d known. A compelling case for disarmament is made, and whatever one’s opinions on that subject, it’s refreshing to come across a production that dares to take a stance rather than leaving the audience with an ambiguous conclusion.

The show is never boring. It is not the sort of production that gets bogged down in technical details of how the bombs were constructed, or how successful they were relative to expectations. Sefton is evidently committed to the role, with key moments portrayed with passion. The cynic in me wants to whinge about the music swelling to a dramatic crescendo as it does on television whenever the next evictee of a reality show is announced. But, in truth, it’s not nearly as overdone as that in this play, which, with the threat of nuclear weaponry being topical for all the wrong reasons, makes an important and informative contribution to a pertinent issue.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

A Thousand Sons is a powerful solo performance that blends action and poetry with verbatim testimony from a forgotten community of British Nuclear Test Veterans who were used and betrayed by those in positions of power.

The audience will follow Bertie, a nuclear test veteran, from the 1950s to the present day as he witnesses the horrors of Nuclear weapons and fights for justice after experiencing life-changing repercussions.

Nuclear weapons are existential threats. A Thousand Sons gives a voice to those who have experienced them first hand in a play calling for justice and issuing a warning:

Consider the true cost of nuclear weapons.

Etcetera Theatre
265 Camden High Street
(above the Oxford Arms)
Camden, London NW1 7BU

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