The Accrington Pals
Sat 8th September to Sat 15th September
This lyrical, absorbing play is set in Accrington during 1914-16. The "Pals" are the men from the local volunteer battalion who march high-spiritedly off to the Great War with their experiences in the trenches contrasted with those of the women left behind adapting to new patterns of life and drawing together in the face of deprivation. At times funny, at times sad, the play paints a moving and powerful picture of the changes in civilian life during wartime.
The Accrington Pals, Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry, until Saturday. Running time 2 hours 30 mins.
BASED on a real story this play by Peter Whelan combines life on the home front during the First World War with brief snapshots of action on the Somme as the 700 men from one small Lancashire mill town and its surrounding villages form the Accrington battalion who must walk - not run - towards the German machine guns during the battle of the Somme.
Lights flash, guns blaze, whistles urging them over the top are blown, and within half an hour 585 are killed or wounded.
But back in Lancashire the news in the papers sounds positive - until the mothers, wives and sweethearts begin to hear rumours of disaster and surround the mayor's house demanding to know what's really going on.
Housewife Annie, superbly handled by Gennie Holmes, has a premonition of the truth when her husband's injured racing pigeon flies back to its coop. As she collapes her battered son Reggie, played with terrific choreography by Pete Meredith, grows up before our eyes and orders the neighbours to stop staring.
All this happens during the increasingly tense Second Act which stands in good contrast to the opening scenes which are informative but tend to sag a little in the middle.
Having said that Anne-marie Greene, who takes on the central role of the emotionally-straightjacketed May, holds things together well as her character slowly starts to unwind under the influence of the less repressed Eva (Lucy Hayton) and her boyfriend Ralph (Calum Speed) whose roles combine very well indeed.
Nick Knibb, as the recruiting sergeant, displays good timing on his strong monologues which set the tone for this sombre play, written in 1982, when some of the survivors of that war to end wars were still alive.
Perhaps the most powerful scene of all comes close to the end as Joe Fallowell, who plays artistic Tom, the younger man May can't admit she loves, appears in ghastly, staccato form, a shell-shocked
automaton of his former self.
Directed by the experienced Pete Bagley, this is a play about hearts and minds as much as the war. The set is stark and and the battle scenes surprisingly few. Nor, as might be imagined, are there a lot of laughs. But there is a truth here about the relationship between the poor and the powerful which, from 1916 onwards, will not be the same again.