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Church Hill Theatre
Review by Thom Dibdin
Powerful in its scope but rather raw in its delivery, Leitheatre’s production of The Accrington Pals – at the Church Hill Theatre until Saturday – is a fitting presentation to stage during the week after Remembrance Day.
As a striking piece of First World War history, Peter Whelan’s play hits the mark full on. Not for its examination of life in the trenches, but for the way it brings normal life in a north English industrial town into light.
It follows a trio of young men who join up along with 720 of their townsmen, enough to form a whole battalion: the Accrington Pals of the title. As they leave for manoeuvres and eventually the front, this reveals where the men who fought and died came from. It shows a society very different to today’s, peopled with those they will leave behind.
Jennie Davidson plays May, a bluff woman who runs a market stall pitched so the mill girls can buy a piece of fruit on the way to work. Andrew T Henderson is her 19 year-old cousin Tom, brought up by her family and still lodging with her after her own parents have died.
It is this complex and slowly revealed relationship that forms the real driving force of the play. Through it, and through their friends and neighbours – particularly Tom’s pal Ralph (Aidan Heald) and his sweetheart Eva (Constance Clark) who takes over Tom’s lodging – the reality of the social upheaval caused by the war is shown.
At first the war is not all bad, particularly in the time between the creation of the battalion and their first real engagement. It is a chance for independent-minded May to make her own way in a world now not dominated by men. Female emancipation is a reality, and the social structures are loosened.
Peach of a role
Davidson clearly relishes what is a true peach of a role. Here is a woman driven by the feckless nature of the men who have surrounded her, unloved by her neighbours, and unable to either admit her own cravings for a cousin ten years her junior – nor see that she is recreating him in her father’s image.
Henderson, too, finds that emotional heart in a character who, through force of circumstance, is unable to express his true emotional feelings. He tries but his best attempts are constantly rebuffed.
Heald and Clark put in lively performances as Ralph and Eva. Clark is particularly strong, portraying Eva’s own complex relationship with May, while keeping in with her own friends down the mill.
Director Alan Jeffreys does an excellent job in bringing out these personal relationships. All of the characters is well drawn, right through the nine-strong cast. Where he is less successful is in the larger ensemble scenes, where the banter and flow of the piece don’t quite come off. It is just too static at times. Nor do Tom and May’s occasional enthusing on political themes always ring as true as they might.
The staging is excellently done. Derek Blackwood’s design allows the play to flow smoothly from May’s street stall to her parlour – and from an Accrington dominated by towering mill chimneys to the Somme dominated by great guns.
It is in the sound design that this doesn’t come up to standard. What is there is good, but there is not enough between the scenes to cover the necessary movement of cast and scenery. As a result, what is actually very smoothly done appears to be raw and clunky, as the atmosphere is lost from one scene to the next.
The enormity of the whole play is the destruction of a whole generation of men from one place in one fell swoop. In their first meaningful action, 235 of the 720 Accrington Pals were killed and 350 wounded. It took just 30 minutes of the morning of first of July 1916.
The political enormity is the way that officialdom tried to cover it up, scared of the effect on morale. With no instant communications, not even the wireless, the women were left to find out of their loved-ones’ demise through the patriotically obscuring words of the newspaper.
Leitheatre’s production, by focusing so successfully on the emotional side of life at home in Accrington, finds a real empathy with events that happened almost a century ago, when the world was a very different place.
Run ends Saturday 19 November (matinee performance at 2.30pm).
Ticket details on Leitheatre website www.leitheatre.com