The Accrington Pals

by Peter Whelan

Performed in the Unicorn Theatre 26 - 29 June 2013

This Play, written in 1980 by Peter Whelan, tells theatrically the tragic story of the 700-strong Accrington battalion - proud to be recruited by their mayor into Kitchener's army and subsequently almost wiped out on the first day of the battle of the Somme in July 1916. Like Shakespeare's Henry V, the huge events are reduced to the tiny space inside a theatre and seen in minute detail through the eyes of a fraction of its victims. Unlike many other war plays, Whelan recognises the war obliterated more than the lives of the soldiers, it transforms the women left behind to fight 'the home front' as well. The Unicorn was an ideal canvas to paint these painful human details. Arriving in the auditorium the huge back set was beautifully representative of an Accrington street, in front of which was a greengrocer's barrow with "May's" fruit and vegetable wares on display. The entry music was evocative of the early 20th century music hall and the eye gradually took in the downstage sandbags. We were to be in two places at once: at home in Accrington and in France in the trenches.

The skilful set design was slickly changed to appropriate music. Sadly not quite slick enough! Several times the play lost momentum and actors had some problems picking up the pace, though the detailed evocation of May's kitchen was superlatively well conceived.

The contrasts between 'life before' and 'life after' the battle are brilliantly recreated by the Abingdon Drama Club. May, played by Alex Codling, the hardened owner of the stall is unable to persuade Tom, (Terry Atkinson) a younger man, she's barely aware she loves, not to enlist. Tom, a sensitive artisan and deep-thinking man knows he has little real choice when his duty is called upon. May cannot even buy him back out, though she tries with the avuncular Company Sergeant Major, (Jon Crowley). We meet the street, Tom's friend Ralph, (Lee Orchard), who has brought Eva, (Rebecca Peberdy) to take Tom's place in May's business; the Boggis family - lay preacher Presbyterian Arthur (John Hawkins), his wife Annie (Lynne Smith) and their naughty teenage son, Reggie (Ashley Curran). Later two other women friends, Sarah (Rosie Clarke) and Bertha (Carrie Bell) complete the microcosm. Gradually we witness their lives torn apart by events.

The fragility of human relationships and its vulnerability to social, psychological and emotional pressures are set uncomfortably before us in the play. Those who have not been affected by war can easily identify with each character. They were played well enough for us to feel their elation and their pain and we see, (better than they!), how inappropriate are many of their actions/words. The naturalistic opening to the drama contrasts with the heavily-stylised scenes which conclude it, in which the dead come home and those who remained behind struggle to fight on.

Some of the over-layered scenes made possible by the play remain 'visual' long after they have finished playing: the letter home from the trench, written and read simultaneously; the charge 'over the top' and the poignant singing of Eva, ironically in Britannia costume of Edward German's 'Oh Peaceful England'; the drunken frustrated women joking and laughing as their men shake with fear under a barrage. Setting these simultaneously is one of the best visual metaphors you can see on a stage.

The sound for the barrage was nearly as terrifying to me as reality. Several times I jumped in my seat and wished I had a steel helmet. You can't be 'too real' in theatre, but it was close! Not quite so realistic was the costume, which, though authentic, was much too clean and 'Sunday best' for Accrington in 1916.

Central to the play is May. Alex Codling caught the gist of her role well, though it was not as relaxed a performance as the play demands. There was so much that was right about the portrayal, it seems wrong to be critical, but she set a very high bar for herself and so nearly got there, it seems fair to mention it. Her memorable lines ring out long after the play ended. Did Tom volunteer because she 'was cold to him'? '...Why did you have to come here as a boy?' I still hear that and wonder at the naïveté of grown 'men' and how immature we often seem against grown women. Tom, a little clunky in the opening scenes, improved as the play progressed. For me, he portrayed fear and heroism better than the sexual tension in his unconsummated relationship with May. His ghost was terrifyingly excellent. Eva similarly grew throughout the play. Her fondling of the absent body of Ralph was erotic and persuasive; a desperately sad image. Ralph, a shallow handsome philanderer was consistent and convincing. Arthur could have been even more god-centred, though he fitted well. Annie, an Irish immigrant to the street, showed us a most convincing emotional breakdown. Her lapse of memory brought tears to my eyes and gave Reggie a special and worthwhile change of character which he undertook very convincingly. CSM Rivers was solid throughout, the army made flesh. He spoke his well-crafted lines with a frightening quiet authority that showed just how close the idealism of the British army matched that of Nazi Germany thirty years later - a truly scary character. Sarah looked a little uncomfortable at times and mistimed some of her comic lines, but the brute of a husband that had gone away was sincerely missed with real poignancy. Bertha played her cameo with uneven assuredness, but scored in all the right places. Her subtle aversion to Sarah's inebriated physical invitations showed her acting at its best.

As an ensemble, Alex Codling, directed her team with a deft assuredness. Audiences have a remarkably rich, multi-layered experience in the theatre. It was a well-chosen play, well performed, thoroughly moving and competent in detail. If the amateur theatre ever had the luxury of 'another week' - this play could grace the West End again! Congratulations on a job well done, ADC!

Gwilym Scourfield - 28/6/13

This play is based on the Accrington Pals unit in the First World War and contrasts its life at the front and experiences in the 1916 Battle of the Somme with the women left behind in Accrington. The set showing a street in Accrington, with May’s market barrow full of veg, sets the scene. The flat ‘street’ very cleverly opened out so the stage was transformed into May’s kitchen, a recruiting office, Sarah’s back yard and so on. This was well done although I thought the scene changes could have been a little slicker. Costumes were good and appropriate to the period.

May, played by Alexandra Codling, also directed the play and stepped in close to the end of rehearsals to take the lead when her leading lady was indisposed. She did a very good job on both fronts. The relationship between her and her lodger Tom, played by Terry Atkinson, full of stifled love and emotion on her part, was very well portrayed. Ralph (Lee Orchard) and Eva (Rebecca Peberdy) in their very ‘open’ and loving relationship (including a naked Ralph in the bath scene – very brave!), showed May what she was missing.

Sarah, the nosy and raucous neighbour, was well played by Rosie Clarke. CM Rivers (John Crowley), I thought at first was a little subdued, but gave an excellent performance in the scene with May when Tom returned to her as a ghost. I would have liked to have seen a younger Reggie, as he seemed too big and old to be bullied by his mother.

A couple of rows of seats had been removed from the front stalls for the trench scenes. I found it difficult to see the emotion and the fear on the soldiers’ faces, due to the limitations of the space available, but the sound effects were particularly effective.

Overall I thought this was well done, and the actors performed well as a company. As well as showing the futility of war (most of the Pals never came back, slaughtered on the Somme), it also highlighted the skills and the opportunities women had to better themselves as a result of having to take on roles formerly performed by their menfolk. A thought provoking and poignant production.

Mike and Sally Lacey - Oxfordshire Drama Network


Flare Path
Wed 4th - Sat 7th July
Unicorn Theatre


Flare Path
Tues 17th April
The Clubhouse