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Brighton Year-Round 2023

The Accrington Pals

ACT Foundation in Acting

Genre: Drama, Fringe Theatre, Historical, Live Music, Theatre, Tragedy, Youth Theatre

Venue: Lantern Theatre, Brighton


Low Down

Actors and director can take pride in mounting this intensely moving play, especially in the sheer flow they all bring to Act Two, blazing an arc of ever-growing tensions. It could carry anywhere. ACT did it some service, and must know it.

Directed by Mark Carroll, Set and Props by the Company, Lighting & Sound Operator Erin Burbridge.


Described by Michael Billington on seeing it again in 2013 as ”one of the very best plays about the First World war” Peter Whelan’s 1981 work The Accrington Pals is revived at ACT’s Lantern Theatre as the culmination of a year’s student work.

Those involved in ACT’s Foundation in Acting – as they end their three-day run – must feel a coming-together of real theatre, mounting this ensemble piece. The second act of this work was played to a pitch that makes it nearly unbearable. The sense of company, of sheer moments, emerging actors coming into their force, is palpable.

Whelan’s work is not primarily about the men who march away. It’s the women they march from, the way those women too learned to march with history, with an ironic sense of liberation; and terrible paradox.

Such irony is the crux of Whelan’s play. The First War allowed men to feel increased camaraderie, and – as we’ll see – amongst some, a determination to change the world after the war. For women it meant liberation to become financially independent, prove they’d manage anything from dangerous munitions work (packing explosives, many killed through managerial incompetence) to driving trams: both are referenced here. To some it means owning a bigger shop.

Directed by Mark Carroll, we follow the eight-strong cast, often multi-roling, as men carouse on the cusp of war and volunteer for the Pals’ battalions, through two years to the Somme slaughter on July 1st, 1916.

Pals Battalions and Regiments were those northern units where whole villages and towns of men, often close friends, joined and served together in the same units. The Yorkshire Accrington Pals were one such; Whelan traces with compassion and no small irony the innocence of men and women (already darkening) through the lens of history. What audience and Whelan know is at a tragic angle to his characters: and sharpens its overwhelming obscenity.

Carroll and the company make this an ensemble ballet of lights. Beyond quick-change costumes, army uniforms merely hinted in contrast to the women’s period clothing, there’s strong use of the Lantern’s space. Several occasions at the front features a dance – literally – of lanterns; lives swaying in the balance.

With lighting and sound – trains and machine-guns authentically crisp – operated by Erin Burbridge, the intimate stage is swept with war’s alarms. Whelan split-focuses some scenes; simultaneously we see May’s shop interior, women carousing, with several doubling as soldiers, melting back into named roles. With cast movement of props and boxes too, there’s strong blocking and fluid ensemble movement.

Most scenes take place on the Home Front: usually May’s shop. May (Julia Gadek, who in one performance swaps roles with Sadie Leigh Hudson) is a hard-bitten, already-independent young woman who’s taken on artistically-gifted second-cousin Tom (Ben Goodwin) after his parents die. Tom’s graphic skills honed at Accrington Art College means he’s too precious, May, asserts, to honour his drunken pledge alongside friend Ralph (Digby Cregan) to volunteer.

May naturally can’t admit her feelings, despite mutual attraction. Two poignant moments when they might come together – particularly the second when May’s acknowledged feelings to friend Eva (Maya Kihara) – are botched. The second, guyed by circumstance is the knot of tragic frustration in May’s – and the play’s – paradox. For May, her autonomy reinforces a lack of liberated feeling.

Gadek, who, with the velocity of the ensemble’s opening still rushes a little (never stumbling, no-one does) relaxes into a performance of grief, containment and stature. Gadek builds May into more silences, spaces to reflect. But May can never wholly release herself. Despite relaxing into a warm friendship with Eva who takes Tom’s place, or hosting a lock-in, at every crisis May chooses to stand apart, loses her newly-forged liberation and camaraderie.

Goodwin’s part is easier. Tom on one side warm, lyrical, occasionally immature, is passionate and utopian about how the war liberates his colleagues from money: in the army you don’t need it. Goodwin finds an idealist’s pitch without forcing his ardour: it’s a moving flicker of what might have been. Free exchange of skills: more William Morris than Karl Marx but none the less socialist. Whelan points up how little’s changed with the unleashing of Thatcher’s neo-liberalism.

Kihara’s Eva, discovering love and sex (without any stereotypical downside) with Cregan’s Ralph, is a study of how a shy but self-possessed young woman forges her way without fear of judgement. Kihara notably balances Eva’s steely self-direction, which needs no help from May, with quick sympathy – penetrating May’s self-righteousness. Kihara, reluctantly gala’d for a brief patriotic bash, also sings Edward German’s song extolling peace, allowing irony to sing too. It’s an assured debut.

Cregan’s one of the stand-outs. Confident, in an admittedly confident part, Cregan consistently catches Ralph’s Yorkshire accent, with Ralph’s mix of swagger and occasional inwardness. He burls on and off with presence and quick-change physicality. Cregan modulates his roar (Ralph’s an unquiet roisterer) with tenderness for “my pocket Venus” particularly when with prescience he writes Eva a letter. Both as unembarrassed bather caught in May’s bath tended by Eva and Tom (nice stagecraft), and as a natural leader on the battlefield, Cregan’s already assured.

As his swaggering opposite Sarah (Eva Lloyd Ghale) has to stand out. Sarah’s exuberant, explicit, principled differently to May, married, unabashedly sensual, imagines lovers (‘bronzed Australians’) eggs Bertha (Andy Benham-Nikou) Eva and particularly May to consider their sexuality. It’s a virtuoso part.

Lloyd Ghale is every bit Cregan’s complement – and like him maintains a never over-emphasised Yorkshire accent. Lloyd Ghale’s required to fantasise openly, skirl and mock; quick to sympathy, scorn and dispatch. Mostly though, Sarah faces grief squarely, demands others do the same.

Leigh Hudson’s bullied, simple Reggie is an almost mute part, caught here with a cheery pathos and darting energy, dodging mother Annie (Catie Redwood). Redwood, who doubles as recruiting officer, commander and other military parts, is a strong versatile actor who in the initially small role of Annie shows as cruel and resentful towards her child. There’s a backstory only unfolded with the arrival of what Annie takes as a messenger-pigeon (Kihara quietly shining here). Redwood here rises to an arc of disbelief and grief, a stand-out moment, showing what she can do and why she was cast in a role demanding such strength in a pivotal scene.

Benham-Nikou makes a strong impression as the slightly-underwritten Bertha, conflicted in desire for an electrician exempted with asthma – but resenting it. Paradoxically, if he was a conscientious objector Bertha could at least argue the point!

The climax is glimpsed darkly in the battlefield, far more at home, where visions of the men appear to tormented May, who alone doesn’t march to the Town Hall demanding news.  Of the 700 Accrington Pals, just seven remain alive.

Isolated, in a last moment with departing Eva, Whelan – often so good with such moments, as in his 1996 The Herbal Bed – allows May one dignity. As Eva scorns the tearful yet resolved local newspaper versifier, May counters: “Well you can’t get it all into one poem.” The pain Gadek mutely shows Kihara is veiled with quiet desperation.

Actors and director can take pride in mounting this intensely moving play, especially in the sheer flow they all bring to Act Two, blazing an arc of ever-growing tensions. It could carry anywhere. ACT did it some service, and must know it.