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The Accrington Pals, by Peter Whelan

Review by Hugo Deynem

This production of Peter Whelan's drama The Accrington Pals performed by The Ashton Hayes Theatre Club, directed by Robert Meadows, at The Tarvin Community Centre was full of captivating and passionate performances. I attended the final evening on Saturday, October 12 2013.

The Accrington Pals is a drama about the smallest town in England that raised a battalion to fight the Germans in WW1. All in all, a thousand men were drafted and of the 720 who fought during the Battle of the Somme, 584 were killed, wounded or went missing during a half hour of the battle. The play however tells this pitiful tale by focusing, though not exclusively, on the womenfolk who were left in the town while the Pals went off, first to train in Caernarvon, then Ripon and on to the front in France. The intriguing mix of personalities in the women’s characters gives an engaging insight into the differing impacts that the leaving of the Pals has on them and whose own challenging battles begin when the terrible news of the losses comes home.

The play begins in 1915, before the Pals sign up and head off for their training. The scenery, set and props were wonderfully authentic and the cobbled Accrington streets were brought to life by the detailed scenery depicting the long dull lines of terraced housing around the hall.  The level of detail in the costumes, uniforms, military equipment and stage furniture was exceptional and could have come straight from a military museum. And so the stage was set to brilliantly illuminate the daily lives of hard working men and women, gossiping neighbours and the interlacing relationships. All these are cleverly entwined with copious quantities of humour, suffering, passion and misery. The propaganda being pedaled through the newspapers of the time, continually diluting and diminishing the front line losses, and leading the woman to believe the next military push would be the final one, contributes to the desperateness of the final news when it arrives in Accrington.

The prissy vegetable stallholder May, brilliantly played by Marie Friend, was the most ambitious and hard working of the female characters but her business aspirations ran cobbled streets ahead of her relationship building abilities, ending in her apparently indifferent send-off to Tom. The lack of farewells hid a yearning for the younger Tom who she had taken in and provided a home following a move from Salford.

Tom, the head in the clouds, full of dreams teenager, played by Phillip Law, believes his transfer to manhood lies in signing up and joining the Pals. The emotional relationship with May is one of mutual indecision with the audience willing one of them to grasp the issue at hand before the Pals depart for the front.

The promiscuous but likeable Eva, played by Steph Lemmy, was the grafting country girl brought to town by Ralph. Eva is out to marry Ralph and is deeply devoted to him. Steph Lemmy played out a beautifully touching scene re-living the last time she had soaped his shoulders in a tin bath before the fire.

The fun loving jack the lad character of Ralph, played by Andrew Yarwood, is a happy go lucky type when safely cocooned in the back streets of a Lancashire mill town but takes the pressures of the front line extremely hard once in France. Andrew Yarwood’s solo scene reading the last letter he is penning back to Eva in Accrington is quite outstanding and delivered the emotion and desperation of the situation his character is exhibiting perfectly.

Rivers, played by Mike Howard, was the veteran army officer who displayed complete dedication to his men and an inherent passion for the comradeship that the Pals had. And it wasn’t a soft spot for relationships that drove this belief, he knew from bitter experience one of the only ways that he could incite thousands of men to climb out of their trench in to  the face of almost certain death was to ask them to do it together. Mike Howard brought this passionate army officer into life with each word, phrase and expression he displayed and that passion was tangible to all across the entire audience.

Bertha, played by Yvette Owen, Reggie played by Joe Wilson, Annie played by Andrea Jones, Arthur played by Stuart McNeil & Sarah played by Mandy Jones all individually added a perfect balance of emotion, engagement, and comedy to deliver, along with the lighting and sound effects, a hard hitting, moving, & powerful play. The depiction of a harrowing story of brave men volunteering to fight to the death and a community left behind to support them as best they could through their own valiant war efforts left an audience emotionally challenged and fulfilled with cultural pleasure.

I am looking forward with a thoroughly whetted appetite to the next AHTC production which will be The Cripple of Inishman.

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