REVIEW: Wivelsfield Little Theatre presents a truthful and moving wartime drama

The cast of The Accrington Pals at the curtain call. Picture by Laurence Leng
The cast of The Accrington Pals at the curtain call. Picture by Laurence Leng

The Accrington Pals by Peter Whelan, Wivelsfield Little Theatre, May 17-19

The cast and crew of Wivelsfield Little Theatre’s production of The Accrington Pals, written by northern playwright Peter Whelan, delivered beautifully the essence of the northern spirit in pain and ‘glory’ during the First World War.

The players powerfully captured the agony and torment of mothers and youngsters who were left behind when the Lancashire town’s young men volunteered to fight in the conflict. It was a decision that earned them the nickname the Accrington Pals because they were the smallest home town battalion and all knew each other as childhood friends.

The authenticity and sincerity of the players’ performance was enhanced by a backstage crew who supported the actors with an effective use of the stage space and imaginative technicalities to depict scenes like the Somme battlefield and the grim reality of trench warfare.

The costumes, particularly the heavy uniforms, were a powerful reminder of the period.

Under the insightful direction of seasoned performer Paul Welch there was a sense of what the play means personally to the Wivelsfield cast and crew. It seeped into the atmosphere and resulted in some very truthful and moving performances. It was no accident that WLT chose to perform the play this year in the run-up to events in November, which mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One.

The similarities between the small Lancashire town and the close community of Wivelsfield were underlined in the programme, which was akin to an RSC or National Theatre programme for the quality and quantity of information.

There was also a moving tribute to all those men who lost their lives in Wivelsfield on the back cover.

The play is essentially about the womenfolk left behind to hold the fort while the Pals head off to war.

There were stellar performances from the women in this play who handled their individual character development with intelligence and imagination.

May Hassal, played by Victoria Brewer, who was in virtually every scene, was engaging. At times I was completely transfixed by her plight and moved by her story.

Eva Mason, played by Lindsay Cross, gave a delightful portrayal of a beautiful woman full of hope for life with Ralph, whose spirit gave way to the growth and pain of her character.

Sarah Harding, played by Emily Whiteman, provided earthy directness, contrasting the seeming naivety of mill girl Bertha Treecott, played by 14-year-old Chance Stoner, who held her own with some very promising work.

There was a very powerful portrayal of Annie Boggis, played by Amy Kelly, and her son, Reggie, played by ten-year-old Thomas Drage who handled his role with maturity and emotional depth. He moved through the play capturing the mischievous young teenager, but also grasping the horror of his life to the reconciled maturity of the boy that ensued.

Alex Orchin handled the impulsive and sometimes immature Tom Hackford with authenticity, and the relationship with May in all its restraint was impressive and portrayed with gentleness and sensitivity, which contrasted effectively with Eva’s love interest Ralph, played by Ben Carden, who carried off the part of the uncomplicated lad about town with a sense of fun.

Arthur Boggis, played by Kevin Kelly, effectively portrayed Annie’s husband who was seemingly more defined by his religion and pigeons than his love for his family.

We felt the masterful presence of the symbolic and experienced professional soldier, aptly named CSM Rivers, superbly cast with Mark Newey in the role, who like the Greek Charon, ferried dead souls across the underworld. The command to “move yourselves you glorious dead” was heart-wrenching.

The Accrington Pals was a respectful and fitting tribute to Wivelsfield, and there was a feeling of comradeship and dedication to the cause in this play.

I feel sure that its memory will live on in the Southern Counties community for many years to come.

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