Last Thursday evening we drove over to Manchester to watch the latest production at the Royal Exchange, Peter Whelan’s “The Accrington Pals” directed by James Dacre. It’s set in Accrington during the First World War and all the characters are ordinary working people, mill workers and the like – the same sort of people as my ancestors, some of whom came from Darwen in East Lancashire. The production has been very popular. We’d normally go along at the weekend but couldn’t get two seats together for any of the Saturday night performances. And the theatre was almost full on Thursday.
The Pals were units of volunteers drawn from a particular community or, sometimes, profession. The idea was that this would generate a spirit of camaraderie as they fought together and that it would be easier to recruit men to serve alongside their friends, neighbours and workmates. But they also died together and many communities were devastated when that happened to a large proportion of the volunteers in the slaughter that took place in the trenches of northern France and Belgium.
Accrington is well known as the smallest town to recruit a Pals Battalion. In fact only one company, a quarter of the battalion, were from Accrington. Another company was composed of men from outlying smaller towns in the district, one from Burnley and the fourth from the town where I grew up, Chorley (the Chorley Pals). The Battalion was involved in the first wave over the top during the Battle of the Somme and they were slaughtered. 584 men out of 720 were either killed, wounded or missing.
About 7 years ago we visited the Somme during an Autumn break in North East France. We visited the part of the front at Serre where the Accrington Pals (including the Chorley Company) were stationed. It was very moving to see the little graveyards create in No-mans land where the men were mowed down by the German machine gunners. There were remnants of the trench system and also a monument to the Accrington Pals, made of Accrington red brick for which the town is famous (and a small monument to the Chorley Pals).
The play itself was mainly set in the town, and featured a small group of men who had joined the Battalion and their women in their lives. The first act covered the period before the Pals left the town, their departure for training in Carnarvon in Wales and the lead up to them being transferred to France to take part in the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
The second act was mainly set in the town and concentrated on the lives and reactions of the women “left behind”. There were a few short scenes featuring the Pals in the trenches and going over the top during the Battle of the Som
me. The play showed how lives and ideas were changed by the experience of war. It showed the strength of the women, (to be truthful Lancashire has always been a matriarchal society) how they became involved in “men’s jobs” and how they rebelled in a small way when , after the Somme, nobody would tell them what had happened to their husbands sons etc. They stormed the Town Hall to demand information and, finally got it (the initial rumour was that only 7 men had survived). The play also showed how the need to work together in the battalion caused some of the men to start to become politicised and question the status quo of Edwardian England. One of the Pals, the sensitive artist, Tom, talked about how there wasn’t a need for the money economy and how work should be shared with everyone doing their share of both interesting and tedious work.
(Image source: Royal Exchange Theatre)
The production was very good too as it always is at the Royal Exchange. There were no big names, but the acting was of high quality. And all though none of the cast were from Accrington they all did a good job of talking with an East Lancashire accent. The set design was very good – reproducing a typical cobbled street from the period. And the actors had to endure being soaked by the regular “rain” showered down on them (it was meant to be Lancashire, after all) and I’m amazed that none of them slipped on the wet cobbles, particularly as some of them were wearing the clogs that were worn by Mill town workers during the early decades of the 20th Century.
Emma Lowndes was outstanding as May. She reminded me in terms of her looks, the way she talked and her presence of Jane Horrocks, who comes from Rawtenstall in the Rossendale Valley, East Lancashire, not too far from Accrington. Sarah Ridgeway as Eva was also good. Rebecca Callard, as Sarah, and Laura Elsworthy, made a good double act introducing a little light hearted comedy into what is a serious story, and had some of the funniest lines. Of the men, I thought Gerard Kearns was particularly good and Simon Armstrong was a convincing Sergeant Major.
So another good night at the Royal Exchange, well worth braving the cold January night.