The Accrington Pals, People’s Theatre, Newcastle, until Saturday
Peter Whelan, who died earlier this month, wrote a moving yet unsentimental play set in the smallest of the towns that raised a ‘pals’ battalion in the First World War. This was Accrington.
The Accrington Pals – or 11th (Service) Battalion (Accrington) East Lancashire Regiment – is also distinguished by the dreadful casualties it suffered on the first day of the battle of the Somme in 1916.
Hundreds of brothers, cousins, colleagues and former classmates marched boldly off to war. In the Whelan play, only seven return.
As with all First World War horror stories, there must have been a temptation to dwell on the numbers, the long, long casualty lists.
But Whelan focused on individuals and not just the men in uniform but the women they left behind.
With the benefit of hindsight, so much First World War fiction on stage and in print hinges on stereotypes. In The Accrington Pals we get real people, warts and all.
The strongest and most complex character is May who runs a fruit and veg stall and aspires to a shop. Sara Jo Harrison delivers a pitch-perfect performance.
Rather than the tearful girl left at home, May is fiercely self-reliant. Some call her a “tartar” which she wears as a badge of honour.
The precise nature of her relationship with Jonny Lavelle’s dreamy and artistic Tom is hard to pin down at first.
Their mutual affection emerges haltingly and in contrast to that of the other key couple, Ralph and Eva (Craig Fairbairn and Emma Jane Richards), who are happy in the knowledge they’ll wed one day.
Early in the play, May agrees to take Eva in. They’re chalk and cheese but Eva’s a hard worker and an understanding develops between the two women.
All the men are sucked into the Accrington Pals, falling in behind Ricky Shah’s surprisingly sympathetic Company Sergeant Major Rivers.
When details of their fate dribbles in after initial newspaper suggestions of a victory, the women plan to march on the town hall. May, naturally sceptical, bottles up her feelings.
The play, excellently played by the 10-strong cast, is simply presented and well directed by Maggie Childs and John Gray.
Only the scene in which May encounters or imagines the ghosts of the lost men struck me as a bit out of kilter.
That said, this is a moving and timely production of a celebrated play which shows once again that the amateurs of the People’s can mix it with the professionals.