Review: The Accrington Pals at Hope Valley College

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In a remarkable piece of theatre, Hope Valley College has just commemorated the 100th anniversary of the First World War, writes Jim Stone.

The Accrington Pals, by Peter Whelan, tells of how 700 men and boys from a small area around Accrington signed up for King and Country, only to be slaughtered in the first day of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916.

Of the 700 who volunteered, 235 were killed, and 350 were wounded. The story is told through the eyes of the women who had to watch their husbands, sons and sweet-hearts go to war.

The Accrington Pals were represented by three young men Arthur, Ralph, and Tom, played by Giacamo Barile, Joe Makarov, and Joe Washington.

Together, these boys gave an authentic portrayal of the humorous banter between men, the patriotic demands of a war imposed by elderly empires on youthful soldiers, and the easy way these empires spent so many lives on so few yards of bloody ground.

The men’s sergeant, played by Olivia Mellor, makes a special promise to look after Tom, and this is expressed so sympathetically by Olivia that it seems as if the sergeant already knows his promise will be broken by a bullet.

The independent-minded stall holder May refuses to acknowledge the men’s patriotic duty to go, her love for Tom, and her own need for support from the close-knit community around her.

The role of May was shared by Grace Day and Lizzie Collie, who gave a vivid account of the anguish experienced during the men’s leave-taking.

The young lovers, Ralph and Eva were played by Joe Makarov and (in a shared role) by Scarlett Cameron and Jenna Harris. Together, they portrayed with considerable sensitivity the wrench of parting and the intimacy of brief re-union.

The dark theme of the play was leavened by joshing between women-folk, the comic misbehaviour of an errant child played with aplomb by Robert Nicklin, and the sharp tongue of his mother, superbly played by Eleanor Rowell.

Sarah, played with a desert-dry wit by Megan Foster, provided ascerbic observations on the minutiae of everyday life in the back-to-backs of Accrington.

Tegan Harris, who played Accrington’s first female tram conductor, highlighted the inequalities of Georgian England with good humour. Other members of this fine cast were Megan Bradbury, Caitlin Graham, Ellie Marshall, Emma Stovin, and Holly Watson. The story of this war, retold in the context of a small community, mortally wounded by a world entering its first global war, was made even more eloquent by the stark contrast between the youth of the players and the maturity of their acting.

The Hope Valley College Folk Band punctuated the play with familiar tunes from the era. The costumes were stunningly authentic, and an exhibition of war-related art provided additional context.

The decision by director David Shimwell to stage a school play, which portrays the impact of a world war on a small community, could not have been easy.

But with such a talented theatre group, it was self-evidently the right decision. As a result, the staff and students of Hope Valley College provided a moving tribute to a courageous generation.