REVIEW: “The Accrington Pals” at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, until February 16th.
Box office: 0161 833 9833 Website: www.royalexchange.co.uk
When I first came to Lancashire I lived in Accrington and taught at a local school.
Thus I became familiar with the poignant story of the men and lads who signed up in 1914 for “Pals” battalion, one of Kitchener’s horribly bright ideas. James Dacre’s direction of Peter Whelan’s 1981 interpretation of an appalling incident of slaughter is drama at its best.
For years I have taught First World War Poetry... Owen and Sassoon and others, who have made me deeply question the validity of war. Seeing The Accrington Pals has reminded me forcibly about the terrible sacrifice. However, Whelan’s drama focuses on the women, the mothers and sweethearts left behind and how they coped with their lives.
In the first Act, before the boys actually went to France, there is an amazing amount of humour. The Accrington Lassies could have been the forerunners for the stalwarts of “Corrie’” etc. They have the strength.
May (Emma Lowndes) has the determination to earn enough to move up from her market stall to her own shop, but she represses her feelings and so loses her chance to show her love to Tom (Robin Morrissey). Her isolation is contrasted with her friend Eva (Sarah Ridgeway) who exudes a warmth and thus her loving but immoral and affectionate romance with Ralph (Gerard Kearns) is both a temptation and positive.
As always with the Royal Exchange the combination of excellent acting is paired with superb production elements. With Dacre’s direction, Jonathan Fensom’s design is impressive. The use of the market stall/table is memorable as is the rain. I thought early on to praise the fluid set changing and then I realised that I would be using the word fluid in every sense. The use of rain is significant both in Accrington and on the Somme.
I left with an admiration for the women who started the movement, which has given me the life I can enjoy and a bitter anguish for the loss. On my way home, I paused to look down on today’s very different Accrington, but found myself thinking of all the wars since. I will recall the clever use of the wheeled table, shrouded like a corpse at the start and then in the first scene, constructed into a market stall.
There is no point in hiding the ending because we know, which all adds to the tragic dramatic irony. The final moments when May reconstructs the stall, join with the last moments when CSM Rivers marches Tom out with the paradoxical phrase The Glorious Dead will make me think for a long time about survival and the waste of life in war.
This is a thoughtful production, well worth seeing.
PIPPA MUNRO HEBDEN