PETER Whelan’s 1982 play The Accrington Pals is a perfect choice for this year, the anniversary of the start of World War One, and I doubt that you’ll see a better production than that at Wells Little Theatre until 27th September.
It’s the third time in a decade that the play has been performed by one of Somerset’s remarkable amateur companies, but Lois Harbison’s production at Wells has a raw power and intensity that I haven’t seen before.
The brilliantly effective set designed by Catherine Tucker, and a brave soundscape by Peter Ross, bring both the psychology and the action to vivid life.
It is based on the true story of a regiment of around 700 raised in Accrington, Lancashire – a troup reduced to fewer than 100 in one of the endless “last pushes” of the trench war – the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
The first half is set entirely in Lancashire, as the men and boys get ready for service, and their women prepare to take on jobs that were formerly an exclusively male province.
After the interval the action moves from the “front” to the houses and streets of Accrington, where the women fight frustration and loneliness with helpless anger and determination.
The stark horror of trench warfare is brilliantly highlighted in telling scenes between the arrogantly avuncular Rivers (compellingly played by Tris Hann) the versatile Nick Barlow as Ralph, whose easy confidence is reduced to quaking terror, and Mark Fitzsimmons as the idealistic Tom.
But it is Suzie Tookey who is the heartbeat of this production, with a painfully exposed and passionate performance as May, the woman who cannot express her feelings and finds the wrong thing to say with amazing skill, antagonising neighbours and repelling the man she loves. It’s hard to imagine a better performance on stage this year.
The director has resisted any temptation to hurry through the story, giving Whelan’s deep understanding of the female psyche a chance to unfold, at the same time as finding new depths in her cast.
This riveting play is on stage until Saturday. See it if you can.