It is a poem that has taken on a life of its own.
The story of an imaginary World War One soldier, told in verse from a child’s perspective to explore in moving detail the impact of the conflict on ordinary people, Me Brother Dan was written by Sheffield schoolgirl Molly Meleady-Hanley and has since taken the spotlight at international memorial events.
Copies of the work, which is written in Sheffield dialect and set in the city, were carried by serving personnel to the commemorations of the Battle of the Somme last year, and have been laid on every Commonwealth soldier’s grave. It has also been taken to Buckingham Palace and won a themed competition, Never Such Innocence, that attracted more than 7,000 entries from across the globe.
Now the poem has been transferred to the stage as a production with music that premieres at the Crucible Studio next week. Pitsmoor-born Laurie Nelson is directing and Molly, who attends Westbourne School in Broomhill, has adapted the piece for the theatre – meaning that, aged just 15, she is already a bona fide playwright with a show at the UK’s biggest drama complex outside London to her name.
“I am very excited and thrilled to see Me Brother Dan being brought to life, especially on home ground in Sheffield and in the fantastic Crucible,” said Molly, who penned the original words as an 11-year-old. The play is timely, as World War One commemorations culminate this year with the centenary of the Treaty of Versailles that brought hostilities between Germany and the Allied Powers to an end.
The production has come about by popular demand from veterans and is being worked on by a team of near-volunteers, including Kit Lane – a designer with West End experience – and Cath Booth, Sheffield Theatres’ former stage manager, as well as students from Derby University.
It is hoped the play can be taken on tour – venues, schools and barracks around the country have expressed interest – and Molly has two more historical plays in the pipeline about Sheffield children.
Me Brother Dan begins with a stirring description of a young man marching off with his comrades, ‘heads held high, while the Sheffield crowd clapped and cheered them so’. But a few lines later, his mother is found at home ‘sobbing and rocking, hands to heaven’, having received tragic news about her son’s fate.
“Dan’s body never came home,” the poem reads. “He lies without us, in some distant land/In a place me Mam will never be able to go.”
Molly said she was trying to offer a fresh outlook on the war.
“I find that writing helps me to transfer my imagination on to paper and it brings the stories that I carry inside of me to life. We all carry stories, and Dan is a story I felt passionate about and wanted to share. Very often, World War One stories are told and shared by adults, even those that depict children’s inner thoughts. I wanted to write Dan’s from a child’s perspective and experience because of this. Children and young people have stories to tell too.”
She had relatives who fought and died in the conflict – these include Patrick, her great uncle, who contracted pneumonia at the end of the war and is buried in Ireland. The poem’s rueful conclusion compares the soldiers to caterpillars whose lives were cruelly cut short, an analogy inspired by a real place in France called Caterpillar Valley Cemetery.
“I have a brother called Jem who I love so much,” said Molly. “I also thought how it would feel to see your big brother go off to war and to hear of his death.”
People in Sheffield contributed hugely to the war effort, on the battlefields and the home front, she said.
“They suffered and sacrificed so much, including the children at the time and it’s something we should never forget – yet rarely do you see any films, poems or plays about the Sheffield experience. This was another reason that spurred me on to write Dan’s story. His is an ordinary Sheffield working-class soldier’s story and his family’s story. I also wrote the poem and play in the Sheffield accent because this needs celebrating too as part of our city’s history and culture.”
Laurie Nelson, meanwhile, trained at the American Film Academy in New York before returning to his home city.
“It’s wonderful to be back,” he said. “It’s an amazing opportunity for all of us – and for myself, as a Sheffield lad from Pitsmoor. Getting the chance to direct and act at the Crucible is a dream I’ve had since childhood. I’m very grateful to be part of this project, bringing to life this extraordinary piece of work from such a talented young writer.”
Me Brother Dan, he observed, was ‘astonishingly accomplished for one so young’.
“It is an important piece of work,” said Laurie.
The cast includes Shaun Doane, of comedy band the Everly Pregnant Brothers, and Bob Leaver, who doubled as dialect coach and script consultant respectively. Rehearsals were held in community halls and military costumes have been loaned by The History Bunker in Leeds. The play has the backing of the Army’s 212 Field Hospital, the British Legion and the Lord Mayor’s Office in Sheffield, and its text could also be published as a book.
Molly has set her sights on a career in drama. “This whole experience of bringing Me Brother Dan to the stage has been a great learning experience for me, one I will always remember and cherish," she said.
Performances are happening on Monday and Tuesday, March 18 and 19, at 7.45pm. Call 0114 249 6000 or visit www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk for tickets.