AN AUGUST BANK HOLIDAY LARK
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Friday 7th February, 2014
No one can be unaware that it’s a hundred years since World War I broke out. We must prepare for a barrage of works that commemorate the start of hostilities. This early salvo comes from the formidable Northern Broadsides, in the form of a brand new piece by Deborah McAndrew. Rather than show us the horrors of the trenches, McAndrew keeps the action wholly within a small community of millworkers.
It’s Wakes Week, a welcome relief from the rigours of t’mill and the locals revert to a more pastoral kind of activity as they put flowers around their hats and practice their clog dancing. There’s a bit of a star-crossed love story as show-off Frank (Darren Kuppan) courts Mary (Emily Butterfield) behind her blustering father’s back. McAndrew gives us cheeky humour too as dopey Herbert (Mark Thomas) asks an older man to have a look at ‘it’ for him – before revealing it’s a banner he has painted for the festival. The script is peppered with detail, giving us a glimpse into a way of life that has all but disappeared, a way of life that the Great War did much to help eradicate.
The dancing is a joyful spectacle, choreographed by Conrad Nelson. There is the building of a ‘rushcart’ that is akin to an Amish barn-raising. The male actors give off energy that is infectious, while the female actors play the music. As a dramatic device it gives focus to the story, while the recruiting and the fighting all takes place off-stage. McAndrew uses recurring motifs – lines of dialogue, symbols – to wrap her storytelling in a neat package with maximum emotional impact.
The cast is a fine one. Ben Burman’s William is good-natured if a bit dim compared to poetic brother Edward (Jack Quarton) – both establish themselves in our hearts before they ‘take the shilling’. Elizabeth Eves is strong as hard-working matriarch Alice Armitage and Lauryn Redding is notable as Susie Hughes, a local girl embittered by the impact of the war on her love-life.
Director Barrie Rutter is also mardy patriarch and windbag John Farrar, given to bluster and sarcasm. He is also party to one of the play’s most moving scenes, punctured by the turn of events. Emily Butterfield is also superb when bad news strikes her like a lightning bolt – Of course, in a story about young men going off to war, you know it’s inevitable that sooner or later someone is going to (sorry) pop their clogs. Here it is handled beautifully and there is a final punch in the gut, theatrically speaking, to remind us that we ought to be remembering those who were lost, willingly and wholeheartedly.