NODA Review - The Accrington Pals by Peter Whelan
'The Accrington Pals' is something of a local favourite (for obvious reasons) and given the performance date - exactly 100 years to the day from the start of the Battle of the Somme - it was an excellent choice to commemorate and remember all those who lost their lives in that most devastating of military campaigns. So many of the young men sent to fight who lost their lives in the early stages of the conflict were from the 'Pals' regiments and the play shows the buildup to war and the effect that the war had on the loved ones left behind. The production was also the first that has been mounted at the Hippodrome since reopening after the damage caused by the floods of Boxing Day 2015. The hard work and dedication shown in making sure that the theatre could be reopened - against seemingly insurmountable odds - in time for this momentous anniversary is a credit to all at the Hippodrome.
'The Accrington Pals' is as much the story of the Lancashire women left behind as their menfolk went off to war as it is an exploration of the madness of the industrialised slaughter of the Great War and as such, it was an interesting choice of drama to mark the 100th anniversary of the Somme. Nevertheless, there was no denying the thoughtful commitment from all concerned with the production to really give their all to make this a powerful and emotional theatrical statement. That the auditorium was filled to capacity speaks volumes for both the Hippodrome's reputation for productions of quality and the high regard the theatre is held in the community.
One aspect of the production which was immediately apparent was the predominantly youthful cast; an ingenious bit of work from the production team, given the ages of the young volunteers and their - in most cases - equally youthful wives and girlfriends. The staging came across well too with the simple, spare stage, atmospheric lighting, ingenious set design and effective props providing the necessary arena for the exploration of the thematic material thrown up by the play. Costumes were also excellent and added just the necessary amount of both historical accuracy and Northern authenticity to the piece.
Performances were, on the whole, of the reliably solid quality audiences have come to expect from the Hippodrome team. The character of May Hassal is something of a force of nature in the play and is in many ways the real focus of the drama. There's something of the 'Maggie Hobson' about May and Emily Coup did well to focus on this no-nonsense aspect of the character; I enjoyed Emily's brisk and domineering take on the mighty May. Stephen Hooper's performance as Tom Hackford was very powerful; never overplayed and with a naturalistic approach which worked well in expressing the 'real' man behind the stage character, also making a great job of putting across Tom's artistic side without overdoing it. Brendon Barclay really embraced the role of Ralph, perfectly encapsulating his youthful enthusiasm and puppyish enthusiasm: he coped manfully with 'that' scene in the bath too! Full marks Brendon. Chloe McNeil, Hannah Sutcliffe and Gina Foster brought a refreshingly youthful enthusiasm to the roles of Eva, Bertha and Sarah respectively, with Toby Weardon completing the cast of young faces as Reggie Boggis. Toby in particular stood out for me as I enjoyed his straightforwardly realistic approach in bringing the character to life. Arthur and Annie Boggis were in the safe hands of Matt Parker and Justine Sutcliffe, two performers who know their way around a script - and the Hippodrome stage! Matt's Arthur was a quietly innocent creation; softly spoken, humble and with a simple and direct moral code. Arthur was very much the polar opposite to the force of nature that was Annie who was, for me at least, the best drawn character of the evening; Justine captured the essence of the Northern working-class experience and channelled it through the outrageous Annie Boggis! Darren Widdup, a long time member of the British Legion, completed the cast list as CSM Rivers, adding an authentic military presence to the production.
This was a strong production which made the most of the source material, with Martin Cook's direction making the most of the possibilities of the script. This was a deliberately 'artistic' take on the story with very clever use of the stage and scenery adding an extra layer of interest to the (in my opinion) fairly thin material. I did feel that some of the body language and diction of some of the performers - particularly the younger female cast members - was definitely more '2016' than '1916' in nature and there were occasional chunks of dialogue lost to mumbling and gabbling but nothing which was wholly unforgivable. In any case, any of the show's shortcomings could be excused in the face of the emotional force which exuded from the stage throughout the evening: the sheer power and magnificence of the play's ending - the poppy-strewn tableau, beautifully lit - was a particularly strong and suitably fitting finale. With that wonderfully emotional closing scene still resonating in the mind, it seems an apt place to end this show report: proof if proof were needed of the affirmative and life-affirming power of the arts and fitting and exceptional double commemoration/celebration from the Hippodrome which I'm sure will live long in the memory of the audience.