If Deborah McAndrew’s moving and ingenious play sets the standard for commemorating WWI, we will indeed pay due and fitting tribute to our ancestors.
Militarism and sentimentality are kept at a distance in a story set amongst mill-workers in a rural area, adjacent to a Lancashire cotton town.
The horror of modern warfare is about to explode, but local attention in the hot holiday weather is riveted upon the approaching Rushbearing Festival of Morris dancing.
And attentions tend to be riveted when the irascible John Farrar (Barrie Rutter) is around, demanding simple perfection from his male dancers.
He’s not to sure about young Frank’s (Darren Kuppan’s) tendency to be ‘flashy.’ And what with the lad’s mother (Elizabeth Eves) allowing her chickens to eat his flower garden, and Frank courting his daughter (Emily Butterfield) without his permission, you have the makings of a witty and gritty Romeo and Juliet
But grudges aren’t held for long in this happily interlocking community, and the relationships between them develop as richly as in a novel.
The audience of course know what is come, but there is no sense of let down. Through the minor conflicts and the attention given to producing excellent music, song and dance, you come to understand and care about the characters as they are drawn into war.
Frank and Farrar’s sons - the cheerful poet Edward (Jack Quarton) and his sparky young brother William (Ben Burman) - join up. But there’s calm during their training period and a wedding, before they are sent to the Dardanelles.
Barrie Rutter also directs, and there are brilliant touches such as the wedding dance morphing into a march, with clash sticks turning into rifles.
And when those fatal, inevitable War Office telegrams arrive, Rutter the actor draws out every ounce of emotion, by simply staring endlessly at the envelopes, as if doing so might undo them.
Although reference is made to the harshness of mill life, the pre-war village seems over tranquil and caring. But somehow it exudes credibility, perhaps because it stands for the innocence of a world destroyed forever by new powers of destruction.
Sadly, I can’t name every other talented contributor to this joint Northern Broadsides and New Vic Theatre production.
But Andrew Whitehead, Brett Lee Roberts, Mark Thomas, Russell Richardson, Sophia Hatfield and Lauryn Redding all inhabit character studies that add to the zest of life being lived.
Whilst the highest praise also belongs to Conrad Nelson’s music and choreography and Lis Evans’ single, but ever apt stage set
Basic emotions haven’t changed, and playwright Deborah McAndrew’s great achievement is to take us into the hearts and minds of 100 years ago.