National Operatic & Dramatic Association (London Region) Review

We were welcomed by front of house staff, including some of the cast, in costume and wearing poppies, into a foyer which had been appropriately decorated with Union flags and a Royal British Legion display.  The extremely informative programme was attractively laid out, well printed on quality paper, and the Players had even managed to include a short obit for Peter Whelan, the author of the play, who had died only the week before.  The cover design by Helen Capewell, repeated on posters, was eye catching.  Seating was at decorated tables and again Union flags were everywhere.

All of the above is very important as it helps to put the audience in the right frame of mind for a play such as this one which is such a very powerful and emotive piece.

Presenting a play like The Accrington Pals in a ‘one size fits all’ type of hall with its limitations, presents problems as there are 18 scenes with 8 different venues.  Your Director Ruth Corner dealt competently and imaginatively with this by using two small thrust stages at the sides, one for nearly all the Army scenes, which meant that many of the scenes could move seamlessly between Accrington and Army Camps.  Any delays in changing the Accrington scenes were inventively covered by Sara Jane Hunter, Katie Hatrick, Graham Caesar-Gordon and John Sharp, a spotlit quartet on the other thrust stage, who, with piano accompaniment from Musical Director Linda Saunders, gave us renditions of many of the well-known World War I songs.  I know that this is not scripted so congratulations to both Ruth and Linda for adding this element which increased the enjoyment of the audience.

One small point regarding the music however; the programme mentioned the use of the English folksong ‘All Round My Hat’ and its later links to Steeleye Span, but you also used Mike Harding’s song, ‘The Accrington Pals’ without a programme credit!

The sets, constructed by Alan Caesar-Gordon, Haydn Davis, Tina Barclay and Liz Peskin, were simple which made the changes very quick.  The market stall with its boxes of seasonal vegetables was effective as was the range in May’s kitchen  – both told the audience exactly where they were.

Sound and Lighting, both under the control of Les Brewer, were excellent; the unseen mill workers in clogs making their way to work and the Battle of the Somme were particularly effective and set the scene very well.

Properties from Janeta Kling and Joan Carr were good – just one small point ladies, pans and kettles a hundred years ago were metal and they got HOT; picking up a boiling kettle without a cloth would have resulted in an accident!  Otherwise in period – the Accrington Observer newspaper was a good touch.

Costumes by Ruth Corner and Georgie Kling were on the whole excellent and in keeping, the uniforms particularly.  However, May Hassell was much too well dressed for an ex-mill girl turned market trader in a very poor area of Accrington – even one who was striving to better herself and return to the sort of better off area where she had grown up.  Her immaculate skirts and jackets and her pristine white blouses would soon have been very grubby, unprotected as they were by an apron.  Market root vegetables are dirty!  She, like the other girls, would always have worn a shawl too as well as one apron on the stall and another when working in her kitchen.  The play opens in Winter, so heavy shawls and knitted gloves all round would have been appropriate.

The lad, Reggie Boggis, was also far too well turned out to be what he was, a street urchin, constantly in trouble with his mother, staying out all night, tormenting the neighbours and teaching younger children dirty songs.  He was clean and tidy, not as much as a shirt hanging out of his trousers, which would probably have been cut downs at that time and in that neighbourhood.

All the cast made a good attempt at the Accrington accent, some, inevitably, with greater success than others.  I admit I am not completely up to speed on the Lancashire accent but even those actors who occasionally sounded more London or Home Counties than Northern had obviously tried very hard.

Suzie Batters portrayed May Hassell as the tough girl she is – taking advantage of the times to better herself while terrified of showing emotion.  Your accent was good and consistent and you reacted in character throughout; a very strong performance.  Was your hair and make up too pristine perhaps?  If so, it didn’t detract from an excellent characterization.

Kirstin Stansfield as farm girl Eva Mason, brought to the town to work in the mill and help May, was so obviously deeply in love (and/or lust) that your moments remembering Ralph were very expressive and in keeping with your character.

Liz Peskin gave us an Annie Boggis whose hard handed approach to child rearing collapses when she breaks down, the first one to be certain that the battle had been disastrous for the Pals – two extremes of emotion merging seamlessly, well portrayed.  Again, accent very good.

Georgina Kling as Bertha Treecott, another mill girl who became a tram conductress when the men joined the Pals, gave us a naive youngster; she conveyed the idea, to me at least, that she was representing all the young girls who had to grow up very quickly and support their parents, a good performance.

Tina Barclay as Sarah Harding, scripted as a mill girl in her late twenties but portrayed here as an older woman, the neighbourhood gossip and busybody.  I have not seen this character in this light before but Tina made it work very well.  Another good, consistent accent.

Louis Stansfield  (Tom Hackford) an excellent portrayal of a politically motivated young man torn by his emotions, reacting alternately lovingly and violently to the people and events around him.  Accent dropped into Home Counties very occasionally but it didn’t seem to matter that much.

Andy Hockey (Ralph) Eva’s lover, has the memorable nude scene in a tin bath in front of the kitchen fire which was handled very well.  Your accent was interesting because it was so broad that at times your words got slightly lost and I wished I had a Lancastrian with me to translate!

Steve Cubbage (Arthur Boggis) London/Midland accent, but you put over the character’s Primitive Methodist beliefs well.

Haydn Davis (CSM Rivers) particularly impressed with his ability to use a cut throat razor!  Accent good and you were very believable as the experienced, hard bitten senior NCO on the verge of retirement, encouraging your boys, many of whom were still wet behind the ears and in need of nursing along.

Joe Neustadt (Reggie Boggis) suitably cheeky and believably making the transition from street urchin to breadwinner when the news comes that father has been killed, which results in his mother’s breakdown.  Again, slightly more London urchin than Lancashire at times, perhaps influenced by his ‘father’, and, as I have already said, you might have been dirtier, especially when you were supposed to be suffering from a mighty nose bleed!  A good helping of stage blood on the face and a soaked cloth might have worked better than the just scrubbed look!

Everyone involved is to be congratulated on an excellent production.  Several of the audience was emotionally affected and I overheard many comments along the lines of ‘the best thing I have seen for a long time’.  The play, which can be bitty and disjointed, flowed, characterisation was kept up throughout.  A powerful drama very well presented.

Judith Watsham
Regional Rep NODA London 11A