England, Arise! (Lawrence Batley Theatre)

Bent Architecture respond to the World War one centenary with a new play with an anti-war stance

This is not the first time that playwright Mick Martin has dramatised Huddersfield’s place in history: his splendid Broken Time, surely due a revival, dealt with the events leading up to the formation of the Rugby League. England, Arise!, set some 20 years later, is less successful as a piece of theatre, but is an honest account of a neglected and significant series of events and an appropriate, if surprising, contribution to our commemoration of World War One.

Bent Architecture's England, Arise!
Bent Architecture's England, Arise!

Arthur Gardiner of Huddersfield was a conscientious objector in 1916, not because of all-embracing pacifist principles like the Quakers, but, as a good Socialist, through his feelings of solidarity with the working men of all nations. By then Huddersfield had become a centre of resistance to wartime recruitment and, eventually, conscription.

Inspired by Cyril Pearce’s book, Comrades in Conscience, England, Arise! establishes the place of the Socialist Sunday School alongside other radical movements such as the women’s suffrage campaign and tells the story of Gardiner and his friend Percy Ellis and the privations and punishments they endured.

Initially the play, in Jude Wright‘s production for Bent Architect, is too jokey, with historical characters like suffragette Lavena Saltonstall and Socialist intellectual Alfred Orage presented as caricatures. With modern costumes and the conceit that this is a performance by a socialist dramatic society, it’s all a bit cosy, with narrators interrupted and corrected by other cast members and such modern gags as the anti-Socialist father who lists his pet hates as rabble rousers, suffragists and Bradford City fans.

It’s about the time that Arthur Gardiner is brought before a tribunal that the tone changes. His principled eloquence – taken, I presume, from transcripts – is delivered with understated, yet fervent, conviction by Chris Lindon. Percy Ellis (James Britton) has been a rather shadowy figure in the early scenes, characterised chiefly by his interest in free love, but Britton, too, plays the later scenes with sincerity and some power.

Stephanie Butler skilfully, if sometimes irritatingly, caricatures two very different radical agitators, Laura Bonnah is nicely convincing as Arthur’s future wife, Sis Timmins, and Matthew Booth is the most successful of all in finding the right tone for a production poised between naturalism and caricature, with Sis’ blunt and aggressive father standing out in a string of neatly differentiated characterisations.

Barney George‘s simple designs, with the Socialist Ten Commandments a meaningful background, work well enough, but the songs make less impact than I had hoped.

Bent Architect’s tour of England, Arise! continues as follows:

30 – 31 October : Kardomah 94, Hull

1 November : Carriageworks Theatre, Leeds

4 November : Cast, Doncaster

7 November : Sunderland Stages

9 November : Square Chapel, Halifax

10 – 11 November : Mechanics Theatre, Wakefield

14 – 15 November: People’s History Museum, Manchester

18 – 19 November: Pioneers Museum, Rochdale