by Mark Hayhurst
Directed by Jonathan Munby
Designed by Paul Wills
Lighting designer Tim Mitchell
Music by Alex Baranowski
Sound designer –Fergus O’Hare
Movement director Danny McGrath
Costume supervisor Mary Charlton
Minerva Theatre at Chichester Festival Theatre
Wednesday 15th June 2016
Tom Gill – Bert Ingram, private , private 3rd Manchester Pals
David Moorst – Alfie Longshaw, private 3rd Manchester Pals
Phil Davis – George Ingram, Bert’s father
Kelly Price – Agnes Ingram, Bert’s sister
Amelda Brown – Eliza Ingram, Bert’s mother
Phil Cumbus – Max Henderson, civil servant Imperial War Graves Commission/ Sergeant Emment, British Intelligence Corps
Alex Jordan – Squire, private 3rd Manchester Pals
/ Lieutenant Parfitt, adjutant
Niall McNamee – Earnshaw, private 3rd Manchester Pals / Lindquist, Swedish ship steward
Sam Phillips – Lieutenant Jennings, 3rd Manchester Pals / French tailor
Tim Preston – Robert, a neighbour of the Ingrams, a soldier
Edward Sayer – Corporal Quinn. 3rd Manchester Pals / Librarian
Freddie Watkins – Conker, private 3rd Manchester Pals
Andrew Westfield – Company Sergeant Major Deakin, 3rd Manchester Pals
Andrew Woodall – Major General John Shea
We hadn’t booked this in our initial Chichester booking (a season which might almost be called “The early 20th Century Season”) as The Battle of The Somme as a topic fell low on my entertainment barometer. Then they announced the cast and we had to see Phil Davis on stage. Just looking at the cast list for this, and comparing Ross, playing next door, Chichester is almost “the anti-Globe / RSC.” This year, Emma Rice announced The Globe was heading towards 50 / 50 male-female casts. Regents Park Open Air Theatre presents a female Henry V. The RSC has its all-black Hamlet.
In contrast, Chichester presents the all-male Ross, and then First Light has two women in a cast of fourteen. Yes, and both are set in war zones during World War One, this in 1916, Ross in 1916-1918, so this is authentic. Looking at Stratford and The Globe recently, I was beginning to feel sorry for ethnically-British white males emerging from drama schools, and wondering where they were ever going to get roles. Well, lads, Chichester beckons.
The real Private Ingham’s grave
If you go, buy a programme. The article by Mark Hayhurst explains the genesis of his play clearly … it’s on the Chichester Theatre website too. He visited the Somme battlefields in 1994, and saw the adjacent graves of Private A. Ingham and Private Alfred Longshaw, both in the Manchester Regiment, died 1st December 1916. Private Ingham’s grave is often visited. It is unique. 346 British deserters were executed by firing squad. The military euphemism is SHOT AT DAWN. Of the 346 graves, this is the only one so marked. Below it adds: ONE OF THE FIRST TO ENLIST. A WORTHY SON OF HIS FATHER. The two privates were executed together, and their army numbers: 10495 and 10502 show they enlisted on the same day in 1914, and in the same place in Manchester. Both were members of the 18th Battalion, Manchester Regiment, known as the 3rd Manchester Pals. In 1914, hastily formed “pals” battalions consisted of 800 to 1000 men from one locality. The two absconded in October 1916, after fighting through the first battles. They were caught as stowaways in Dieppe, wearing civilian clothes. Though shell shock had not yet been admitted, it was held against them that they had fled from a back line camp before being returned to the front, rather than running away in action.
From this, Mark Hayhurst built his story. Why was it inscribed on the gravestone? Why was it only “his father”? Was their disagreement in the family about this bald and bold declaration that their son had been executed? This is the play we have.
The soldiers on the top of the trench. George and Agnes below.
Like Ross the play marks a 1916 centenary. It will be playing on July 1st which is exactly 100 years from the start of the Battle of The Somme. Like Ross, it has many “micro-scenes” and like Ross it has two time threads running simultaneously. The first thread is Bert’s (Private Ingram) family. His father George (Phil Davis), his mother Eliza (Amelda Brown) and schoolteacher sister, Agnes (Kelly Price). All three have rich “old-fashioned” Lancashire accents.
The simultaneous action: The soldiers charge by in 1916, while George (in 1925) stands watching
The family thread starts in 1922, goes back to 1916, with postcards from the front, the letter announcing that he “died of gunshot wounds”, and a lad (Robert) who George had protected from beating as a child visiting to offer condolences. Then it’s 1918, and Conker, (Freddie Watkins) who was with Bert the night before his execution, arrives to tell them the truth. We move up to 1925 when the War Graves Commission finally allows the inscription, and round off the play by going back to 1914. Confusing? Not in the slightest. It’s all crystal clear.
After the firs assault at the Somme
The front line thread, is the story of Alfie and Bert in 1916. Alfie (David Moorst) is political. He doesn’t want to kill Germans. The escape is his idea. Bert, a hero of the first attack on the Somme, is a more passive lad, and follows his best mate. We see them escape, then on the ship, and finally captured and executed. Both have stunning separate speeches on their last night.
Away from the front: plenty of military banter (Alfie, David Moorst, talking; Bert, Tom Gill, drinking from cup)
The two threads interweave and blend. Very often, characters from one thread are on stage, but motionless during scenes from the other thread. I see a movement director is credited. Long gone are those days 20 years ago when black clad ASMs do the set changes. Here as normal nowadays, it’s the cast. The set is a trench right across the back, with official looking “ministerial” door frames and walls just visible behind. There is a great deal of furniture coming and going, sometimes for just a minute of dialogue. The cast execute all these changes in precision military drill. It’s brilliant. The movements of the soldiers can be frantic, measured, or sombre according to the point in the play. Some tables are removed at a slow march. My aunt, a World War II veteran who had done a stint as a drill sergeant, used to tell me in my school CCF days that a slow march was the most difficult thing to do well. She would have been lost in admiration at actors doing it perfectly and with precision turns and lifts.
Alfie (David Moorst) and Bert (Tom Gill) on the ship
A word for the costumes supervisor, Mary Charlton. We’ve been highly critical of costume this year. The authenticity of costume here was outstanding. From our front row seat, we could see George Ingram’s heavily-darned shirt, the scuffs and mud on the boots, the winding on the puttees, the twill on the officers’ trousers. This is how to do it in a period play. The cast also hefted their heavy rifles like soldiers, not like the balaclava clad thespians beloved of so many productions.
The rain: CSM Deakin (Andrew Westfield) and a cheeky Alfie (David Moorst)
And there was the rain. The rain machine was turned on for the longest I’ve seen it. The actors worked with rain running down their faces and uniforms getting gradually sodden. (I hope they get a complete change in the interval, added my companion). Surprisingly, we got central front row seats on the level with the stage. It was surprising because we’d booked late, and the theatre was otherwise virtually full when we booked … full on the night. Anyway, it was a privileged position, though the rain disconcertingly stopped just 12 inches in front of us. But the scene where Alfie and Bert agree to desert looked fabulous, as they sat under a blanket propped up on bayoneted rifles with rain dripping down.
L to R: Bert (Tom Gill) and Alfie (David Moorst), plus Conker (Freddie Watkins)
Bert and Alfie had been on The Somme battlefield on Day One, when 19,240 men died in a single day. They reached further than any of their battalion. They were heroes. Later, when Major General Shea is addressing the question of their guilt for desertion, he says that 50% of men hang back in attacks, but that’s only to be expected. There are some telling moments, particularly from Alfie’s reasoning. He notes how many men go missing completely in the artillery barrages, and suggest some might be mining their way out of there. In fact, 72,000 bodies of British soldiers were never found. He also discusses his brother, in a reserved occupation at home. He says his brother would have been a “conchie” if called up (conscientious objector), and tells Bert that he’s never deliberately aimed his gun at a German. The history all seems accurate. The “Pals Battalions” took the brunt of the first Somme assault. A Newfoundland pals battalion lost 712 out of 780 men on the first day. After the assault the Pals battalions, or what was left of them, were often reassigned. Hence Alfie and Bert are sent off to a machine gun training area, which gives them the chance to abscond. Ironically, they might have got away with absconding on the battlefield … written off as blown to pieces.
When the subject matter is this tragic, I must add that it was leavened with many tiny humorous moments. The runaways being fitted by a French tailor (a version of the “which side does sir hang? scene), Alfie adopting an American accent, a task Bert can’t emulate, the banter between the soldiers, the pomposity of the brandy-swilling general. Great text. The only bit of narrative I wondered about was the Swedish ship’s steward, Lindquist (Niall McNamee). It seems that he was suspicious, and so informed the Military Police, leading to their arrest. I wondered what motivated him turn them in, as Sweden, as in WW2, was neutral.
George Ingram (Phil Davis). 1925, at the Imperial War Graves Commission
The play is deeply moving. The performances are impeccable. The two “victims” Alfie and Bert are tremendous performances (and I’m avoiding plot spoilers on detail of how and why they were SO good), but so is the stolid George, the stubborn father who insists that the truth, SHOT AT DAWN, is there for all to see. He mutters, “It’s a Kings’ war” at the end. Phil Davis has one of the longest IMBD entries you can find. He always manages to appear real whatever the role or accent. It’s a strange quality. You think he’s typecast, but then look at the variety of roles he’s done. We came to see him initially and we were hugely impressed. Bert’s mother and sister are powerful roles. Great writing too.
Lieutenant Jennings (Sam Phillips) and General Shea (Andrew Woodall)
A special word for Lieutenant Jennings of their company (Sam Phillips) who is a powerful presence talking to them before their trial. He manages to convey firm authority and sympathy simultaneously, and his reaction acting when he appeals to the Major General is excellent.
Five stars, for the second time in eight days at Chichester.
* * * * *
It is 71 years since the last Western European war ended. An unprecedented 71 years of peace in the region.
This timely play stressed why I shall be voting REMAIN on 23rd June.
LINKED REVIEWS ON THIS BLOG:
Dunsinane, NT of Scotland / RSC (boy soldier, narrator)
Deathtrap, Salisbury Playhouse, 2016