The Accrington Pals
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
A year before the events to commemorate the centenary of the First World War really begin, the Royal Exchange opens 2013 with a welcome revival of Peter Whelan's play showing how that huge, Europe-wide event affected a small number of families in a Lancashire mill town.
The play is fairly light on plot: the Pals sign up to fight for their country, are sent to Caernarfon for training in February 1915, eventually ship out of the country and end up at the Battle of the Somme in April 1916. While we do get to know three of these men, the play is not really about them so much as the women they leave behind.
The events revolve around a greengrocery stall owned by May, who took in her cousin Tom from Salford when he was a kid and now resists his attempts to move their relationship in a different direction. Into the household comes young Eva from the country to take over Tom's room and his job on the stall when he joins the Pals in Wales. Eva is in a sexual relationship with Ralph even though they aren't married, but he too is about to leave with Tom.
Annie's religious husband Arthur takes his favourite pigeon with him all the way to the front, while his wife batters their mischevious son Reggie beyond the point where it becomes abuse. We don't see Sarah's husband or her child, but she is the wisecracking member of the group who sometimes offends and sometimes raises their spirits.
It's quite remarkable just how many issues related to the war and the period Whelan packs into his script without it seeming preachy or gratuitous. The women bemoan the difference in wages between men and women doing the same job, while Tom talks of the army making him dream of a fairer society where money is abandoned in favour of an exchange of labour. Dramatic irony is used to heartbreaking effect when the women read the newspaper propaganda about how the German lines are breaking up and the end of the war is in sight when we know it still has two years left to run.
The Royal Exchange throws all of its technical resources at the production, creating a floor that looks just like a section taken out of a real cobbled street complete with tram tracks and even puddles from the rain that comes beating down onto the actors at various times. Jonathan Fensom's clever design also incorporates a wheeled table that is transformed into a market stall or dressed to suggest different locations before our eyes.
But the design never overwhelms the real, human story unfolding upon it. The cast features a cast ranging from those who have recently graduated from local acting schools to others with a long list of stage and screen credits, but under James Dacre's detailed direction no inexperience shows and every performance is absolutely convincing.
Just because of the size of their roles, mention should be given to great performances from Emma Lowndes as May, Sarah Ridgeway as Eva and Rebecca Callard as Sarah, but then there are equally good performances from Gerard Kearns as fun-loving Ralph, Robin Morrissey as the gorky artist Tom, Sarah Belcher as fierce Annie and Sean Aydon as her naughty lad Reggie.
Laura Elsworthy is very funny as Bertha, but then she also has to deliver a serious speech about not wanting to go with a man who didn't go to war, even if it was because he failed the medical. Brendan Charleson is Arthur and Simon Armstrong the avuncular leader of the men CSM Rivers.
While the plot may be loose, it is the everyday concerns of these warm, living characters that draws you in and makes you care deeply about what happens to them. The play avoids the obvious emotional scenes when the women find out who survived the battle and who won't be coming home; instead we get the long lead up to that moment and its aftermath.
This is a heartwarming, beautifully performed tale of a small community against the backdrop of the terrible events of almost a hundred years ago that deserves to be seen more widely.
Reviewer: David Chadderton