World War 1 is not short of horror stories. The saga of The Accrington Pals stands out as a particularly upsetting example of the human cost of the conflict. The impact is exaggerated because it started out as a symbol of the willingness of smaller communities to do their bit. ‘Pals Battalions’ were intended to attract volunteers willing to serve on condition their battalion comprised friends, neighbours and workmates.
Accrington, and its surrounding neighbours, gave a major boost to morale as the smallest community to raise a battalion. The reverse was true when rumours trickled back to Accrington that, of 1,000 men, 850 died in service -235 of them in just 20 minutes during the Big Push at the Somme. Accrington was so small almost every family lost a relative and the community was forced to march on the town hall and compel politicians to tell the truth.
All of the ingredients are present for a powerful drama but the new production at the Royal Exchange is oddly muted. Writer Peter Whelan takes a universal rather than specific approach offering little examination of the factors that influenced the volunteers. There are only vague speeches referencing the communal spirit of the army and to the disappointing jobs from which the Pals escaped. No consideration is given to whether they felt betrayed by the deal.
Whelan pushes all the right buttons – pointing out how the war relieved grinding poverty and opened up opportunities for women to occupy jobs previously reserved for men. But again, these points have been made elsewhere and are not unique to Accrington. Much of the play concentrates on the effect of the situation upon the women left behind which offers opportunity for some fine performances. Rebecca Callard and Laura Elsworthy are a excellent comedy duo but even they are out-shone by Gerard Kearns’s cocky (trust me), swaggering but basically decent, Ralph.
The relationship at the heart of the play is, however, unconvincing. May (Emma Lowndes) is hard working but brittle and possibly frigid and it is a struggle to accept that she carries a torch for her daydreaming cousin Tom (Robin Morrissey). Lowndes finds some humanity in an unsympathetic character by digging deep and uncovering a sense of loneliness that forces her to seek company but May remains hard to like. Sarah Rideway offers a perceptive performance, and a contrasting point of view, as the popular down to earth Eva who is drawn to help May in spite of misgivings.
Director James Dacre has a strong sense of time and place capturing an era when people were awakened by ‘ knocker-uppers’ instead of alarm clocks and factory girls made such a racket travelling to work they became a clog chorus. The atmosphere lacking in the script is present in the production thanks to Dacre’s efforts and he is helped no end by a superb set from Jonathan Fensom. The play opens on a striking scene of a cobbled street drenched in pouring rain.
There is nothing actually wrong with The Accrington Pals. It gives the audience fine performances and looks a treat. But you are likely to come away with little more awareness of the specific events than when you entered – which seems a lost opportunity.