QUENTIN LETTS: Heartbreaking tale of town that lost 585 men in a day

THE ACCRINGTON PALS (Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester)

Peter Whelan’s 1981 play The Accrington Pals does not give General Kitchener the treatment he deserves. Kitchener was responsible for devising ‘Pals’ units in World War I — battalions of men from the same neighbourhood. The idea was that recruits could fight alongside their school friends. All this meant was that when there was a frightful massacre on the Western Front, losses were concentrated, terribly, on single towns. Accrington, Lancs, was one such town. Its 700-strong Accrington Pals battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment took casualties of 585 on the first day of the Somme. Mr Whelan’s play tells the sorry story — not so much about that day of battle but about some of the soldiers, their women, and the effect on Accrington itself. To watch the play in nearby Manchester gave it added potency. James Dacre’s production is staged on cobbles that glisten from repeated soakings, be it from rain, blood-tainted bathwater or ghostly emissions from a public well. The cobbles may remind us of the grimy streetscapes the volunteer soldiers have left behind, but they also make for something of a skidpan. A couple of actors struggled to keep their footing. Whoaa! It must be hard for any Lancastrian (in fact, any Englishman) not to feel rage at the way so many lives were wasted. And yet playwright Whelan resists the blame game. There is no real villain in the piece, unless you count Simon Armstrong’s silver-tongued Company Sergeant Major. Officialdom is something the people of Accrington follow almost without question — until it is too late. Would a vivid hate figure strengthen the artistry, or would it make it feel too polemical? Emma Lowndes is nicely pinched as May, a reserved young woman who hesitates to tell her younger boyfriend how much she loves him. Sarah Ridgeway’s super Eva has no such qualms. Miss Ridgeway has something of the young Felicity Kendal to her. Robin Morrissey and Gerard Kearns play their respective blokes. This is an efficient production which tells of one town’s shattering loss. We know the World War I story too well for it to come as a dramatic surprise, but that should not diminish its historical value. Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/


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