Tuesday, 29 January 2013

The Accrington Pals

Like the Broughtonthwaite Mates, the Accrington Pals, were another northern Pals Battalion. Accrington, though, was the smallest town in England to field a volunteer battalion of a thousand men, a battalion that was effectively wiped out within the first twenty minutes of the Battle of the Somme. Barely anyone in Accrington was left untouched by the tragedy.

The Royal Exchange’s revival of Peter Whelan’s The Accrington Pals (17 Jan - 16 Feb),on its home turf so to speak, contrasts the experience of the men in the trenches of the First World War with the lives of the women at home.

Photo by Jonathan Keenan

The men volunteered for Kitchener’s new army in a spirit of bravado and comradeship, seeing the war as an adventure and escape from their daily toil.  Left behind, the pragmatic womenfolk of the mill town find themselves in a rapidly changing world that presents new hardships, opportunities and fears.
 "If there’s one thing that narks the men about this war its the way it shows them up for creating such mysteries round things.  My God! Providing both your eyes point forwards and your arms aren’t on back to front, anyone can drive a tram!"

Photo by Jonathan Keenan

The play is, by turns, poignant and funny and is underscored by dramatic irony; the audience is aware of the fate that awaits the men and the grief the women will face - but not meekly. Frustrated by rumour and newspaper propaganda surrounding The Big Push, the women of Accrington marched en masse to the town hall to demand the truth.

Photo by Jonathan Keenan

The cast are excellent, with great female characters shouldering the weight of the play, from Emma Lowndes as May, the single and independent market stall holder with her own private burden, to Sara Ridgeway’s ardent young Eva, Laura Elsworthy as the naive young mill girl, Bertha, Rebecca Callard’s earthy Sara and Sarah Belcher as the embittered Annie.

The Royal Exchange knows its space well and its set designs are always inspired. This time, designer Johnathan Fensom sets the scenes with  simple cobbles, a tram line, a market stall and a water pump. Being performed  in the round,  there is an immediate intimacy with the audience that a proscenium arch often can’t match. If you get the chance, go and see it.

Besides, you can’t go wrong with a theatre that looks like the set  for a TARDIS interior.

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