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Theatre Review: The Accrington Pals

The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, 17 Jan to 16 Feb 2013

This captivating production of Peter Whelan’s play is set during the First World War on the setts of Accrington, the smallest town to raise its own pals’ battalion. These army units were so-called to reflect their deliberate composition of friends and neighbours. In this staging, life is lived by hurricane lamp and moonlight, and clogs and army boots tramp across the tramlines as the rain pours down, the lighting picking out life in all it brightness and triumph against a dark background of defeat and death. The acting is superb, drawing us deeply into the lives of the women of the town and through them into unbearable intimacy with the fate of their men who have joined the battalion. This heart-rending drama is all the more poignant for eschewing and indeed bitterly condemning sentimentality.

The drama hangs broadly on the affection and tension between the women such as Eva who embrace life with all its risk of loss and those such as her acerbic landlady May who flinch from it and deny it. At the heart of the play is the tormented relationship between May and her second cousin, the idealistic Tom, contrasted with the generosity of the love between Eva and her man Ralph. May behaves like a tartar towards Tom, but in secret she tries to get the sergeant major, CSM Rivers, to release him after he has enlisted. Rivers refuses but promises to look after him like a father.

Amongst the soldiers, the theme of hope against despair is echoed in the Baptist, Arthur who declares that we have failed to build the new Jerusalem and that the war is a second flood, this time of steel, to punish us; here is an oblique reference to the inability of the international working class to stand by one another and prevent the war. Indeed, Tom puts his hope in socialism as both he and this journal understand it, and which he believes he encounters in action in the regiment, the very body which is the engine of the slaughter, but in which no money changes hands, skills are exchanged voluntarily and with a will, and the good of one is the good of all. It is this cohesion and mutuality of the men from the same small mill town which Rivers touchingly believes will dismay the enemy. He shares this belief with the cold and remote authority which oversees the lives of soldiery and civilians alike, and which is unseen and untouchable but ever-present.

Tom and Ralph are together at the front when the fatal whistle blows, Ralph frantically tightening and loosening the straps of his pack, and Tom with staring eyes repeating his socialist belief as if in a trance.

As the play darkens, May meets Rivers for a second time and in a terrible and merciless speech he smashes her illusions and his own. But illusions are the enemy of hope, which we see renewed in the women finding a way of getting to grips with remote authority and, in Tom’s words, joining the ‘particular’ with the ‘general’.