Compelling and completely haunting, Peter Whelan’s The Accrington Pals at the Nottingham New Theatre puts on an impressive performance for their opening night audience. Despite the lengthy run time of 135 minutes, the thoughtful staging and captivating acting maintains the audience’s attention throughout the performance and beyond, leaving us silently pondering as we wait to file out of the theatre.
The Accrington Pals tells the story of Accrington’s residents during the First World War, focusing on market stall owner May (Emilie Brittain) and her relationships that fluctuate between flourishing and failing as the play progresses and the realities of the war begin to hit home. Written in 1981, though set in 1916, the play brings a range of issues to light that are still relevant to audiences watching it today, such as the disparity in the treatment of men in the workplace versus women, and the censorship and manipulation of the media.
Edward Eggleton and Tom Heath, as director and producer respectively, have evidently worked closely and cohesively with the rest of their cast and crew to create a show that fires on all cylinders. The staging works effectively with the realistic home setting on one end of the stage and a more open space on the other, with sand bags stretching across the back wall of the stage. Despite the area cornered off by sand bags only being used a couple of times in the second half, its constant presence on stage paired with the menacing barbed wire laced across the sand bags and all over the back wall served as a persistent reminder to the audience of the omnipresence of war and its effect on the lives of the characters living through it.
“Flashing lights paired with realistic sound effects during the scenes on the war front were particularly jarring”
The lighting, designed by Will Pimblett, added another dimension to the setting; the clever use of dappled lighting, reminiscent of light shining through leaves, to signal any outdoor scenes was a particularly thoughtful touch. Flashing lights paired with realistic sound effects during the scenes on the war front were particularly jarring, creating appropriately heightened drama during those moments.
The only criticism in relation to the actors was to do with line delivery; a combination of the required accent and speedy delivery, perhaps related to nerves, meant that occasionally it was difficult or even impossible to understand certain lines. With a relatively large acting cast of 10, what was most impressive about this production was the chemistry between characters. All individually talented actors and actresses, the way they interacted with each other throughout the play was, personally, a highlight of the overall performance. Many of the scenes focused on just two characters interacting, and no matter the pairing or group, each person played off their fellow cast members brilliantly, creating a very realistic and compelling insight into the relationships between each of the characters as the war brought them together or, in some cases, dragged them apart.
“What was most impressive about this production was the chemistry between characters”
The rather heavy subject matter of the play made the overall atmosphere rather sombre and serious, and so the excellently timed comedic relief of Sasha Gibson’s character Annie was well received by the audience. This made her portrayal of Annie’s breakdown in the latter half of the play even more impressive and shocking. Taking place slightly earlier in the play, the male characters, now all enlisted, charged from their trench in slow motion as Gemma Burton as Eva stood at the front of the stage under a dreamy spotlight, singing a beautiful melody as her friends were struck down by German gunfire at her feet – another notably jarring and haunting scene that ensured the audience would be thinking about the play long after it was over.
Overall, this production of The Accrington Pals is undoubtedly worth seeing, and its cast and crew deserve high praise for their impressive efforts.
‘The Accrington Pals’ is running at Nottingham New Theatre until Saturday 7th May. For more information see here.