Rob Johnston
Hyde Festival Theatre Company & Tameside Council Cultural Services
The Continental, Preston

Bantam wait... the male cast of Bantams before falling in for duty

There has been no shortage of recruits amongst actors signing up for military service in this year’s commemoration of the First World War.

Theatres across the country have helped the war effort with revivals of classic plays, or—as in the case of this work—unearthed some new facet of the carnage.

Bantam regiments were those made up of men who might otherwise have been ruled out of war service due to age, disability, even height. All those who might reasonably have avoided conscription, but chose otherwise.

One such was the Manchester 23rd, which had its roots in Ashton-under-Lyne.

Writer Rob Johnston has created his play around a group of those friends and acquaintances who volunteered, as well as the women they left behind who promptly signed up for munitions work. While it is bound to borrow much of its emotional heart from some of those aforementioned classics, it manages to avoid cliché and establish its own earnest credentials.

Johnston, an award-winning writer, again shows an ability for the ring of authentic dialogue, and with director Peter Wright handles sudden changes in tone with equal skill.

Bantams spans two years between scenes in Ashton or on the Western Front and yet is able to develop clear characters as well as dramatic or romantic entanglements between them. There’s even some welcome dark humour.

A reflective epilogue, over-burdened with facts and figures, and a syrupy final scene suggest the play has not yet quite settled on an appropriate ending but not before delivering a set of skilful performances.

Robert Moore is a vulnerably slow-witted Tom, Adam Urey and Andrew Madden a pair of dour yet thoughtful fellow comrades and Michael Howells manages five clearly defined characterisations. Understudy Hayley Johnson stepped nimbly into the role of Mary.

A cast of eight, for what is essentially a fringe theatre production, and a running time of more than two hours also underlines the ambition of a touring production from Hyde Festival Theatre.

It completes that tour in Lytham and Wigan.

Reviewer: David Upton