The Accrington Pals were a battalion of 700 volunteers from the small Lancashire town of Accrington, young men inspired by Kitchener, patriotism and the chance to serve their country side by side with their closest friends. Tragically, on 1 July 1916, 235 men from the Pals were killed and over 300 were wounded at the Battle Of The Somme.
Peter Whelan’s 1982 play is inspired by these events, but mostly focuses on the women they left behind. Although there is the odd scene of combat, it’s the relationships between market stall holder May and her younger cousin Tom, and that of her friend Eva and her lover Ralph that provides the emotional impact. The scars on display are not just ones obtained on the battlefield.
James Dacre’s production at the Royal Exchange is dominated by a stunning set by Jonathan Fensome, who has managed to uncannily recreate the cobbled streets of early 20th century Accrington, even spraying the streets with rain at times. It’s a beautifully realised piece of design, one that powerfully conveys a particular place and time.
The performances are all incredibly strong and nuanced, giving the production its emotional heart; the standout performance is that of Emma Lowndes as May, the emotionally distant market stall holder in love with her cousin, but too afraid to tell him so. Her reticence is contrasted with that of her best friend Eva, who is passionately in love with Ralph, the cheeky Jack The Lad character played by former Shameless star Gerard Kearns.
While these two main relationships give the play its narrative drive, the production is full of wit and warmth, far funnier than its subject matter might suggest. Rebecca Callard gets most of the best lines and displays impeccable comic timing as May’s friend Sarah, while Laura Elsworthy is terrific as the clumsy Bertha. The fact that it’s being staged in Manchester, just 20 miles north of Accrington makes the local humour particularly effective, especially the well-meaning barbs aimed at Salford and Yorkshire.
Although the play focusses on the wastefulness and senselessness of warfare, Whelan has not written a polemic; this is a character piece, more than anything. Some of the minor characters may not be particularly well developed but it’s hard not to admire Robin Morrissey’s excellent performance as the idealistic and somewhat naive Tom, or Sarah Ridgeway’s touching Eva. It’s Lowndes though who really sticks in the memory though, with her heartbreaking portrayal of emotional restraint.
The production doesn’t quite justify its length, at almost three hours, it gets a bit wearying after a while and the scenes of the women back home end up being far more compelling than those depicting the men on the battlefield. Yet it remains a tragically relevant play, and one that, in this area of the country particularly, still has the power to hit home.