Excellent productions – I am delighted to say – are really quite common, outstanding ones come along every so often, but I’m seldom inclined to use the word "unique". I think An August Bank Holiday Lark justifies bringing it out.
An August Bank Holiday Lark is an evening of considerable emotional power (much of it understated), exhilarating and intensely moving, and – for much of the time – great fun. Yet the story is straightforward and, if not hackneyed, is pretty familiar.
A village in the Summer of 1914 has its share of petty problems and simple joys, such as preparations for the village festivity and the romance of two young people whose parents are at daggers drawn (but not literally – it’s not Romeo and Juliet!). After the interval we move forward in two leaps of time, the inevitable tragedy arrives and we see how life carries on.
What makes it unique is the seamless integration of the work of writer Deborah McAndrew, director Barrie Rutter and composer/arranger/choreographer Conrad Nelson. The village in question is on the Lancashire slopes of the Pennines and the festivity is a Rushcart celebration, still to be found in revived form in places such as Saddleworth. The rushcart is a multiple symbol, most prominently of the play’s themes of change and continuity: even before the desolation of the Great War, the old order is threatened by Wakes Week holidays in Blackpool.
McAndrew’s script is economical, touching many bases allusively, but allowing the audience to make the connections. Characters emerge clearly in short scenes. This allows space for the production to develop a sort of homespun epic style, with spectacular scenes such as the building and parading of the rushcart (design Lis Evans) and some terrific clog-dancing, accompanied stirringly by cast members on violin, accordion, flute, banjo and drum.
However, it would be wrong to see the song and dance merely as highly enjoyable production numbers. In Act 1 the glorious 8-man set piece is the last affirmation of the old order: only men dance, fancy steps are not allowed, tradition is all. At a wartime wedding celebration in Act 2, the world is changing: gender roles are blurred, individual showing off is in, and – in a wonderful transformative touch – three of the dancers gradually move into march time and head for Gallipoli.
In a production of enormous humanity and warmth all twelve cast members excel, delivering sharply defined characterisations alongside their skills as dancers, instrumentalists or both. Such is the quality of the ensemble that it is tempting to mention none by name, but Barrie Rutter is compelling as a domineering father/leader of the Rushcart team and he is matched by outstanding performances by Elizabeth Eves and Emily Butterfield as the two strong women in his life.
An August Bank Holiday Lark plays the Viaduct, Halifax, until 15 March.
Later Yorkshire tour dates are:
18-22 March – Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield
1-5 April – Theatre Royal, York
8-19 April – West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
22-26 April – Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough