An August Bank Holiday Lark
Oldham Coliseum Theatre
The contribution of Halifax-based Northern Broadsides to the war commemoration effort is this new play by Deborah McAndrew, set in a northern rural community in 1914.
The play is not just set a century ago but follows many of the tropes of gentle northern comedies written in the early part of the last century, right down to the outspoken patriarch who likes a drink and bans his strong-willed daughter from marrying her true love.
The man is widower John Farrar, played by Northern Broadsides patriarch Barrie Rutter (although he seems to refer to himself simply as "Rutter" these days), the local squire and leader of the village clog dancing troupe. His daughter Mary (Emily Butterfield) falls for Frank (Darren Kuppan), son of John's widowed neighbour Alice (Elizabeth Eves) whose chickens are always escaping and eating the flowers he is growing for the village rushcart.
The first half builds up to the big event of the village rushcart, in which the huge cart is built before our eyes as the men dance—quite an impressive spectacle on which to end. But the spectre of the war grows in the background as the young men discuss joining up and the older men, particularly Dick Shaw (a lovely performance from Russell Richardson), follow the progress of the conflict closely in the newspapers.
As we start act two, we have a departure from the usual formula as John has relented and allowed the couple to marry already without much of a battle, before Frank and John's two sons, poet Edward (Jack Quarton) and less cerebral William (Ben Burman), leave for the front. For those who know something about the First World War, the mention of Gallipoli will ring some alarm bells, a disastrous campaign that nearly ended the career of a young Winston Churchill and resulted in the deaths of thousands of men.
It's clear from early on that there will be some tragic news at some point and, as this is basically a romantic comedy, it isn't too difficult to guess who will come back from the front and who won't.
I don't know whether it is because I saw this on a weekday matinée, just a couple of rows in front of a noisy foyer, rather than with a supportive press night audience but I didn't feel the emotional punch that I was expecting from the reviews of some of my colleagues. It has the feel, aided by the effective music and choreography from Conrad Nelson and a large cast, of a celebratory community production, so perhaps it isn't viewed at its best from the back of a proscenium theatre.
The characters as written are fairly thinly drawn and many are played as broad comic types for much of the time, but there are some events, predictable as they may have been, that have some emotional resonance, particularly a poignant solo moment from Rutter when the expected telegram arrives. There is also plenty of comedy thrown in, some of it from old northern sayings and expressions, which McAndrew seems to have worked hard to dig up.
As a whole, it is a feel-good, nostalgic piece against the backdrop of the First World War and, while lacking in a great deal of substance, is certainly enjoyable.
Reviewer: David Chadderton