It is fitting that Manchester’s Royal Exchange theatre begin the New Year by closing its winter season with ‘The Accrington Pals’ as themes of opportunity and finality, new horizons and brutal endings rifle through it. Inspired in part by a Salfordian clan of aunts and uncles from his maternal side, and in part by a vision he had of an Edwardian woman edging her way down the trenches, it isn’t surprising that Peter Whelan’s play is both earthily real and beautifully surreal.
It wasn’t until Whelan began thoroughly researching World War I, and stumbled upon the tragic story of ‘The Accrington Pals’, that his mumble of ideas really took form. And as the WWI centennial preparations begin it seems suitable that Whelan’s 1981 play should be brought back to life in the fantastic space of the Royal Exchange.
Under direction of James Dacre, ‘The Accrington Pals’ is portrayed in all its glory as a brilliant example of theatre that covers a supposedly well-known topic, while steering clear of the usual clichés. Yes there are scenes of woe, marching soldiers and all the gloom that the realities of war bring, but there is so, so much more.
The play is based around a typical survey sample of Accrington locals; the town (and surrounding area) saw 700 of its fit and enthusiastic men respond to Lord Kitchener’s call-to-arms. Many enlisted through a sense of duty, “How can I take up arms – how can I not?” many as a way out of the working-class monotony they daily endured, “Sick of office, sick of stall”, and many as a means to see new horizons in the company of pals. Most, by far, did not return.
Seen largely through the eyes of those left behind – mothers, wives, lovers, and those who frustratingly never managed to be any of the above – ‘The Accrington Pals’ explores the incongruity of life lived during such changeable and anticipatory times. Fortunately the Royal Exchange has brought in an exceptional cast to explore such intricate personal and social dynamics.
Lead by market stall owner May, we see how issues of war are woven around a tight-knit community deconstructed by it. Played both chillingly sharp and tenderly warm by Emma Lowndes, May is all quiet affection and resentment. She pleads with CSM Rivers to release her artistic and passionately sensitive younger cousin Tom – played delicately by Robin Morrissey – from his army commitment, yet cannot bring herself to face up to the deeper desires she has for him. Rivers poignantly quips wile shaving “I must finish these whiskers, leaving them only stiffens their resistance” and proceeds to take Tom off to war under his wing.
In contrast to the achingly distant relationship of May and Tom, is the delightfully natural pairing of Ralph and Eva. Gerard Kearns‘ humour “My little pocket Venus” and Sarah Ridgeway’s sensuality and steadiness, “Let me feel that hollow in your back. That’s mine that is”, offer an opposing sexual dynamic to that of May and Tom.
Contrast thematically threads throughout the play. As well as relationships, there are contrasting gender roles each with deeply opposing shades. The men, both carefree and cautious, go off to fight, reporting back about “That free spirit of comradeship you see out here, but not at home” that Tom tries to capture in his sketches; yet we know ultimately of their tortuous and doomed fate. The women, on the other hand, are left to pick up the pieces and end up faced with opportunity unknown to them before. As May enthuses, “While I was out I looked at a shop…the ones i’ve fancied taking on. And suddenly it all seems more possible.” In a similar vein Bertha, previously the butt of everyone’s jokes, takes on a role of responsibility on the trams, even attracting attention from the men. Self-proclaiming that “Even my dad says i’m better followed than faced” Bertha attracts desires from an asthmatic electrician – May practically points out that they are hard to come by – yet cannot even consider responding to his advances due to the ‘shameful’ fact that he isn’t well enough to fight. Performed with a naïve and self-depreciating humour by Laura Elsworthy, such scenes perfectly sum up the social complexities daily occurred. With every benefit, there are a thousand mind-twisting drawbacks.
Although it may seem odd to speak of benefits when talking of war, ‘The Accrington Pals’ strength is in steering completely away from war clichés. For a play about WWI is it richly feminine at its core and highlights perfectly the areas of beauty and benefit within such a terrifying landscape. The men are bold and bond over a believed sense of breaking free from their working-class shackles, whilst heading straight into the line of fire. The women demonstrate a newfound independence and strength in presented opportunity, whilst harbouring a deep-rooted and well-grounded fear of the unknown.
Such is the community strength of the women that despite all anxiety, and the brutality they live in, you find yourself actually belly-laughing at their humorous natterings. There is Annie, played by Sarah Belcher, who repeatedly runs on stage just to beat her son yelling, “Stand still while I hit you”. At one point she does so with the buckle end of a belt, leaving him cruelly damaged and bloody. Her friend Sarah, who is suspicious and sharp, played by the very funny Rebecca Callard, talks of her other half “He’s like a steam hammer. If he missed me we’d have the wall down”.
Other comic occasions were provided accidentally courtesy of the extremely wet cobbled staging which saw Ralph slip once or twice and Eva land flat on her bum (jokingly playing it off by saying “oops, think i’ve had too much”). Despite this the set was very well done. There was a minimalist mix of domestic trappings that would turn into trenches at the flip of a kitchen table; perfectly knitting the notion of distance and yearning between the men and women. Sound and voice play was very effective, although on a couple of occasions the music seemed to end a little too abruptly, with the effect of shaking you out of the fantasy for a spilt second.
The fantasy however cannot last for long. Culminating in a brilliantly surreal scene, that was the initial impetus for Whelan, you are left feeling quite torn open and left bare. The Royal Exchange has put on a production that is as relevant now as it ever was, with regards to warfare, and the dynamics of people and the lives they lead. Bitter, brutal and beautiful. ‘The Accrington Pals’ will haunt you for weeks to come.