Cometh the war, cometh the play. Peter Whelan's play The Accrington Pals isn't new, the RSC premiered it more than 20 years ago, but its arrival as the latest in the West Yorkshire Playhouse's True North season could hardly have been better timed; not least because Accrington lies immediately adjacent to the parliamentary constituency of the currently bellicose Jack Straw.
In 1914 the Lancashire town of Accrington was the smallest community in the UK to raise its own battalion to fight in the First World War. In just ten days, the town sent a thousand of its men and boys to serve King and Country; and in just twenty minutes in July 1916, most of them were slaughtered on the Somme.
The first half of Whelan's play evokes a vibrant, though far from thriving, working class community centred around May's greengrocery cart as recruiting gets underway. Jane Hazlegrove gives an initially brisk account of May, not quite Mother Courage but still the unsentimental tradesperson at the centre of things, giving work and lodging to Tom (Greg Haiste), a gentle waif with artistic leanings, and not realising until it is too late that, despite her bluff front, she really does want to respond to his physical approaches.
This fragile relationship contrasts sharply with the cheerfully open sexuality that fires Ralph (Tom Lister) and the girl he imports from Clayton-le-Moors, Eva (Zoe Henry), to take over Tom's job and his place in May's household. And then there's the termagant Annie, played with wondrous ferocity and blistering energy by Meriel Scholfield, constantly frustrated by a Bible-bashing pigeon fancier of a husband (Simon Walter) and an epileptic son (Dominic Hecht). These, and others, are drawn together into an authentic tapestry by some quality writing and fine ensemble playing (for which not a little credit should go to dialect coach Neil Swain who localises the speech with accuracy).
The second half plays itself out with a fair degree of tragic inevitability. Designer Liz Cooke's versatile rabbit warren of a set requires only lighting changes (Adam Silverman) to transform it from backstreet Accrington to the trenches at the Somme, as the close knit community divides brutally into two bands of comrades, the men trying to maintain morale in the filth and blood of the war, and the women attempting to hold each other and their community together for the men to return to.
Lucidly, and at times lyrically, directed by Rebecca Gatward, this production advances a policy -unannounced, but increasingly apparent- of Ian Brown's incumbency at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, to re-discover all that was best in the disappearing culture of regional theatre. Under his guidance, WYP is rapidly becoming a gilt-edged brand.