First Light

Mark Hayhurst
Chichester Festival Theatre
Minerva Theatre, Chichester

David Moorst and Tom Gill shine bright in First Light Credit: Manuel Harlan

It is over 20 years since Mark Hayhurst first saw the gravestone of 10495 Private A Ingham with the unique inscription “Shot at Dawn—one of the first to enlist. A worthy son of his father”.

His curiosity and imagination were stirred by the sight and the eventual result is this play, the story of Bert, his family and friend Alfie, and how their execution and the war in general affected them all in very different ways.

The Battle of the Somme, the bloodiest battle of WWI with the loss of over 1,000,000 lives (British, German and French) has moved into the realms of history, but the audience is thrown right into the middle of it as the first line of troops rush in, pause silhouetted against the light sky before disappearing "over the top" while blinding light and deafening explosions give a terrifying impression of how it was. Only five return.

The play doesn’t actually tell us more than we already know about the disastrous battle and the plight of young shell-shocked men being executed for desertion, but it concentrates on the personalities of these two young men and the trauma and divisions it brought to Bert’s family lasting long after the war was over.

Jumping backwards and forwards in time and place from France in 1916 to Salford, Manchester during the period 1916 to 1924, every change is effected with military precision as the soldiers march or parade the props in and out, keeping time with Alex Baranowski’s evocative music, and how very effective and sobering it is at increasing the solemnity of the occasion, but it does also have its lighter side. At one point, the troops set up a French tailor’s establishment complete with mirror, hat stand and tailor’s dummy, bringing these from the other side of the trenches as if captured from the enemy—so incongruous.

Absolutely stupendous performances from Tom Gill as stolid and sensible Albert and David Moorst as confident and dominant Alfie. Friends for life as they engage in good-natured banter together in the trenches but two very different characters and how things change when finally faced with the prospect of the firing squad. Alfie is the one who breaks down uncontrollably, fighting and screaming for help, while Bert, calm and comforting, promises to stay with him—forever.

Andrew Woodall is all you would expect a Major General of that period to be: arrogant, self-important and positive that executing the two men is completely necessary to avoid starting an epidemic of deserters, refusing any pleas for clemency.

Phil Davis is also perfect as Bert’s father, a working man who never had a chance to learn to read but determined to set the record straight and tell the blunt truth to the absolute despair of his distraught wife who cannot bear the shame of a son to be regarded as a deserter. Kelly Price as wife Agnes tears at the heart of every mother in the audience with her pain-racked scream of denial at the shocking news.

An intriguing story, powerfully portrayed, shocking and involving. Even in the small Minerva theatre, and with the ‘trenches’ being the only static set, the play is amazingly realistic—compulsive viewing.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor