World War One drama opens at Welwyn Garden City theatre

Darren Barsby as CSM Rivers and Hannah Leonard as May in The Accrington Pals at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City [Picture: John Davies]

Darren Barsby as CSM Rivers and Hannah Leonard as May in The Accrington Pals at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City [Picture: John Davies]

John Davies

A chronicle of the terrible waste of war can be seen on stage in Welwyn Garden City this week.

Emily Curry as Annie and Rhys Jose as Reggie at The Accrington Pals at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City [Picture: John Davies]Emily Curry as Annie and Rhys Jose as Reggie at The Accrington Pals at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City [Picture: John Davies]

Directed by Yvana Reeves, The Accrington Pals by Peter Whelan is a powerful, funny, intimate and moving piece.

The play opens at the Barn Theatre, in Handside Lane, tonight (Friday).

It is the eve of World War One and Accrington has answered Kitchener’s call to form a volunteer regiment of young men who had grown up together, played together, worked together.

Whelan’s title refers to the Accrington battalion that marched jauntily off to war in the summer of 1916.

The Accrington Pals at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden CityThe Accrington Pals at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City

Of the 720 who fought during the Battle of the Somme, 584 were killed, wounded or went missing within the space of half an hour on July 1, 1916.

Yet Whelan tells this pitiful tale by concentrating on the womenfolk who were left to hold the fort while the Pals went off to war.

They flourished in some ways, as they found a measure of independence in the midst of anxiety, and demanded answers when they knew they were being fed propaganda.

Whelan’s epic and deeply moving play, first produced by the RSC in 1981, can be seen at the Barn Theatre until Saturday, April 5.

There are some great female roles in this play.

May, fiercely independent and hardworking, resents the fact that the men will be looked after by the Army while she is left to do it all for herself at home.

‘They’ll feed you and shelter you. Not here. That has to be got every minute of the day,” she gripes.

But her no-nonsense, callous send-off masks an unfulfilled ache for her younger cousin, Tom, whom she has raised herself and who naively thinks his hour of youthful freedom has come.

Whelan has been criticised for emphasising the women over the men, but this is a play of contrasts.

The strength of Whelan’s play is that it captures, in the spirit of ‘Oh What a Lovely War’, the contradictions of the time.

In wartime, the women fulfil their unrealised potential.

Hannah Leonard makes her Barn Theatre debut in the role of May and Richard Cartwright plays Tom.

The rest of the Barn cast is Kim Southey, Tallan Cameron, Emily Curry, Rhys Jose, Harry Harding, Tammy Wall, Louise Parr and Darren Barsby.

The context for this piece is beautifully created by Rosemary Bianchi’s set design, using the blues and greys found in the paintings of the official war painter, Paul Nash.

Tickets cost £11 from the Barn Theatre box office on 01707 324300 or online at www.barntheatre.co.uk

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