The Accrington Pals

by Peter Whelan; dir Pete Bagley
Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry
8 – 15 September 2012

To encourage enlistment during the First World War, groups of people from the same town or occupation were encouraged to sign up together with the promise of being able to fight alongside each other. They were known as the Pals Battalions and the Accrington Pals were one of these that suffered particularly heavy losses on the first day of the Somme Offensive.

Rather than the battle itself, the play focuses on three men fated to die that day and more so on the women (and in one case a son) they left behind in Accrington. Three very different relationships, with the participants unaware until too late of their own tragedy, remind us strongly of the need to resolve things today, for there may be no tomorrow.

Somehow though, I didn’t feel entirely drawn into their lives and that made it harder to share in the women’s grief when the news of the slaughter finally filtered through. May (Anne-Marie Greene) was the central character and the best played of the women. Perhaps her situation of never quite being able to abandon herself to her feelings for the younger Tom (Joe Fallowell) resonates most strongly with the audience, who realise how little time she has left. Lucy Hayton and Sara Farmanfarmai were creditably believable as May’s closest friends. Gennie Holmes played the third of the women left behind and her appearances as were mostly in pursuit of her long-suffering son Reggie (Pete Meredith) to give him yet another beating. I enjoyed the sensitive way that Pete played this character although he’s getting a bit old to play an abused child, whilst Gennie seemed a little young to be playing his violent mother. The three soldiers were all played fairly well, but I felt were all lacking a little something and I had trouble believing in them. Nick Knibb as their Sergeant Major was a much stronger performance and had the presence to capture the audience’s attention whenever he appeared.

I think the problems had more to do with the staging than with the individual performances. It is difficult to flit between scenes as much as this play does and still keep the pace strong. It doesn’t help when there is a short blackout between each scene while tables, chairs and a market barrow are moved about. There were some attempts to merge particularly the barrow movements into the action, but I felt more could have been done. The set and auditorium also seemed to contrive to add a certain amount of reverberation to the speech, making it hard to pick up everything that was said despite, or maybe because of, the good volume from all concerned.

Overall though, a moving evening, but with the feeling that with some work, it could have left the whole audience in tears.

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Calendar Girls

by Tim Firth; dir Stephen Boden
Priory Theatre, Kenilworth
1 – 15 September 2012

The story of Calendar Girls is widely known, based on the true story of WI members who posed naked for a calendar to raise money for a settee for the hospital visitors’ lounge. Demand for the calendar snowballed and it became a huge fund raiser for Leukaemia Research. The Priory are one of the first amateur companies to stage the play, and had the additional coup on their opening Gala night of welcoming Angela Baker, one of the original calendar girls featured in the play.

The theatre was buzzing with goodwill and the play got off to a cracking start with good pace and enthusiasm. The set was well done with a revolving stage for the transition to outside and all changes were smooth and well rehearsed.

Characters were well played and the end of the first act was raucously received and  deservedly so. No nudity was apparent but there was enough to know that the Director had done his job well in concealing any potential embarrassment. I assume every angle had been checked! Special mention goes to Susi Walker as Jessie who delivered some wonderful lines with great comic timing and received a round of applause for her ‘nude ‘photo.

On the downside, some of the casting was a little awry. Cora (Esther Dunn with a fabulous singing voice) appeared much too young to believably play a single mother with a grown up daughter. Ruth (Rebecca Gardner Tildesley) was also lacking in years. In addition Chris (Nicky Townsend) and Annie’s (Sue Davison) close relationship was not as apparent as it should have been and Chris not as forcible a character as the part demands. Although many lines were delivered beautifully and facial expressions were wonderful, I did not quite believe she would have had the dynamic force to push such a project forward.

However a lovely evening with some great cameos. Well received and a wonderful reminder of the humble beginnings of what has become the fastest selling play in British Theatre. Well done Priory, I now look forward with interest to see how other local groups will fare with their productions.