fri 14/08/2020

The Accrington Pals, Royal Exchange, Manchester | reviews, news & interviews

The Accrington Pals, Royal Exchange, Manchester

The Accrington Pals, Royal Exchange, Manchester

The women who wait provide a moving viewpoint on First World War disaster

'You don’t need qualification to get shot at': Robin Morrissey and Simon ArmstrongJonathan Keenan

On 1 July 1916, the battalion of Lancashire volunteers recruited from Accrington was all but wiped out in about 20 minutes as they took on the task of attacking the village of Serre on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. Out of 700 men, 235 were killed, 350 wounded, “mown down like meadow grass”. Such was the fate of the Accrington Pals, formally the 11th (Service) Battalion (Accrington) of the East Lancashire Regiment. Some of the lads were as young as 16, inspired by local pride and national patriotism to fib about their age in order to join their mates.

Accrington was the smallest town in Britain to raise a Pals battalion for Kitchener’s Army, so their pride and fate touched the whole community. Playwright Peter Whelan, whose Mancunian father was wounded at Passchendaele in 1917, looks at this heartbreaking story from the viewpoint of the women left behind. “It’s a very feminine play,” he says. Premiered by the RSC in London 30 years ago, it is the story of one small town, but has universal application. The writing is deeply felt, the effect deeply moving. And as director, James Dacre brings to it an insightful and sympathetic control, which keeps the emotions of loyalty, love and loss in tight focus.

This is the workaday world of knockers-up, rain-soaked cobbled streets, neighbourliness and matriarchal rule. At the centre of it all is May, an independent no-nonsense woman in her late thirties, her emotions so suppressed that she misses out on her chance of love with her young cousin Tom, even denying him a farewell kiss (pictured right, Emma Lowndes as May and Robin Morrissey). She has a street fruit-and-veg stall to supply the mill girls on their way to work, but aspires to open a shop one day. Her kitchen is the gathering ground for the other women. We see them growing in confidence and taking over men’s jobs, like working on the trams. But it’s all nicely underplayed as they wait in suspense for what is to come. The dramatic irony is that their fate is in the hands of events beyond their control.

The women are gossipy and chirpy, with a keen sense of humour. Talking about their menfolk’s attributes, one says coarsely: “Bill’s like a steam hammer. If he missed me, he’d have the bedroom wall down.” Whelan is good on female banter – he heard a lot as a boy. So what we have essentially is a Lancashire domestic drama, punctuated with laddish militaria. It develops slowly. Intentionally, there is little marching or sense of warfare.

It is only when, late on in the play, that the news comes that the Pals are being sent to France, rather than just training in Caernarfon and popping home on leave, that reality dawns. And, even then, they are sure that our lads will win. There is just one brief “battle” scene, using a kitchen table and some chairs, demonstrating the Pals going over the top in foul weather. And this is touchingly juxtaposed with one of the girls, dressed as Britannia, breaking down as she sings Edward German’s “O. Peaceful England” at a charity do for the Pals (pictured below left). But unreliable news begins to filter back from the front and rumours are rife. Poignantly, a homing pigeon that one man had taken with him comes home half-dead. It’s a portent. The women fear the worst and march (off-stage)on the Town Hall to demand accurate information. All is lost, but May sets up her stall again for business as usual.

There are splendid performances all round, especially from the five women. But Emma Lowndes makes of May a woman challenged by her own demons: fiercely independent, aspirational, emotionally stunted. As her young friend Eva, who certainly knows what love is, Sarah Ridgeway is an effective foil. Robin Morrissey as Tom catches the sense of an artistic lad unsuited for soldiering – “You don’t need qualification to get shot at,” says May – and Simon Armstrong is a suitably tough but paternalistic sergeant major.

What makes the play as a spectacle is the work of the technical team. Jonathan Fenson’s design, focused on a large cobbled square, which serves for all purposes, is very realistic, especially when the rain pours down, as it frequently does. Emma Laxton’s soundscape, from the haunting call of the Boys’ Brigade Band off-stage to ear-splitting gunfire, and Charles Balfour’s atmospheric lighting are terrific.

From the optimistic beginning of eagerness, loyalty, comradeship, pride, we are left with the crushing desolation wrought by war.

The writing is deeply felt, the effect deeply moving


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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