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People's Theatre commemorate the centenary of World War One on stage

The People's Theatre marks the 100th anniversary of WW1 with a production of Peter Whelan's The Accrington Pals

Paula Smart 2014 All Rights Reserved Sara Jo Harrison, Rhiannon Wilson, Moira Valentine, Sarah Davison and Emma Richardson play May, Bertha, Annie, Sarah and Eva in The Accrington Pals
Sara Jo Harrison, Rhiannon Wilson, Moira Valentine, Sarah Davison and Emma Richardson play May, Bertha, Annie, Sarah and Eva in The Accrington Pals

In the summer of 1914 a 700 strong Accrington battalion marched jauntily off to war.

They had come from all walks of life in Accrington and its neighbouring towns and enlisted together to form a battalion with a distinctively local identity.

When they arrived in France the brutal reality of the trenches was beyond anything they were prepared for.

In just 10 minutes at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, a devastating 584 out of 720 Accrington Pals were killed or reported missing.

The losses were hard to bear in a community where nearly everyone had a relative or friend who had been killed or wounded.

Peter Whelan’s acclaimed play, The Accrington Pals debuted in 1982 and explored the contrast in experiences between the soldiers on the front line and the women they left behind.

The playwright died earlier this month at the age of 82. His widow Ffrangcon Whelan, 80, said the story was, and had remained very important to him.

She said: “It was a play he felt very strongly about. His father was wounded in the Battle of the Somme. As a little boy he can remember taking bits of shrapnel out of his father’s bath while his father was in the bath.”

Told predominantly from the perspective of the women at home, the play sees them establishing a growing sense of solidarity while surrounded by devastating deprivation in terms of money, relationships and hope.

 

Newcastle’s People’s Theatre has chosen the poignant drama as the last of its summer season and will perform it this week in an on-stage commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of World War One.

“It’s quite a big task to undertake,” says Sara Jo Harrison, 34, who plays, May, an independent young woman who displays more than a few shades of Margaret Thatcher.

“She’s really independent and believes in the individual and thinks that people should stand up for themselves and for their own survival,” Sara says.

“You feel quite a responsibility. With it being the 100th anniversary and of course the content of the play too,” she continues.

“It starts at the beginning of the war when all the men were recruited and then it goes through to the first day of the Battle of the Somme when they all died.

“It explores the aftermath of that, which is unimaginable... you couldn’t go down any street without seeing blacked out houses, showing that they had lost someone.”

Also unimaginable was the uncertainty which families had to endure about the welfare of their loved ones.

“The play also explores the propaganda side of the war,” Sara says.

“The audience hears what has happened through what the media was reporting. The women get newspaper reports, which were all censored because they didn’t want to give anything away to the enemy, so no names were ever given and for years the women didn’t know whether their loved ones were going to come back or not.”

In the piece, Sara’s character is tormented by the loss of her second cousin Tom.

“They had lived together since he was little - she’s 10 years older than him,” she says. “They fight before he goes off to war and then he doesn’t come back. He is like a counterpoint to her character.

“He is always talking about fighting for others. He argues against her fierce individuality by saying his wants to go along and fight alongside his brothers in arms.”

* The Accrington Pals plays The People’s Theatre, Newcastle from July 15 to 19. For tickets, call 0191 265 5020 or visit www.peoples-theatre.co.uk

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