In the second of two plays the same day about Lancashire men suffering intolerable conditions (the first was the almost equally intolerable Neville’s Island wherein four executives from Pennine Water are marooned on a team-building exercise) – to Croydon for Peter Whelan’s impassioned and somewhat epic First World War memorial piece based on an actual incident.

Under Lord Kitchener’s increasingly desperate recruitment scheme half way through the conflict, several ‘Pals’ regiments were formed in small towns across the country so that school friends and workmates could enlist together. My great-uncle John Warburton, a bugler in the Lancashire Fusiliers and killed at 20, wrote from the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916 “Heywood men took part in a bombing raid on Wednesday. 63 men took part and 19 came back safe”.

Their losses were small compared to those of The Accrington Pals. A disastrous manoeuvre had them walk just after 6.30am in daylight towards the machine guns in the German trenches. By eight o’clock, 584 of the 720 men were dead.

The men are well-represented in Ninon Jerome’s production: Steven Arnold is credible as the company sergeant major, waist thickened and attitudes hardened by a career in soldiery, and there are pleasing performances from Tom Hackford as the handsome confident Tom and Sam Saunders as the more complex and anxious Ralph. However, it takes an hour and three quarters for them to be shipped to France and the play is more closely focused on the women left behind to take over traditional men’s duties in the mill or public transport, to pine emotionally and physically for male company in a scripting which is too knowing for the period, but serves to engage modern audiences better than, say, Journey’s End. The whole piece has a ‘theatre in education’ feel which might excuse its simple set with only a couple of very basic projections and a fruit stall.

You’ll warm to the women at the heart of the story – Gina Murray’s consistent and truthful May Hassal is one of those sharp-elbowed and tough-but-fair Lancashire women of a type so often played by Lesley Sharp: striking a blow for female independence, she ‘sells apples by moonlight’ from a stall serving shift workers in the mill, and maintains an unconventional relationship – part motherly, part romantic – with the boyish Ralph. Tom’s girlfriend is the arriviste from Macclesfield, Eva – pertly drawn by Anna Doolan especially in a later scene when the two women argue about opening a shop together in the brave new post-war world.

But it’s all about the war, and Whelan is especially strong on the propaganda – everyone seems to be fed lies, and getting solid information ‘back home’ requires a march on the Town Hall. The spin of exaggeration is neatly pointed when Eva sings at a patriotic concert, but falters badly, yet the Accrington Observer still paints it as a triumph. Some things don’t change, who knows if the news from Iraq or Afghanistan has been any more accurate.

Although there was a sharper version at Manchester’s Royal Exchange a couple of years ago it’s good to see the play revived so poignantly during the week of the war’s centenary. But, boy, is it long. I’d say a revision with some ruthless cutting and the insertion of either music from the period, or a Stiles-and-Drewe-ish score could be a winner.

 

The Accrington Pals is at the Ashcroft Theatre, Croydon until 8 November, then the Pomegranate Theatre, Chesterfield from 13 to 15 November.  Production photo: Frazer Ashford.