FIRST LIGHTChichester Festival Theatre at the Minerva
One hundred years ago, British troops tried in vain to sleep, huddled in trenches on the eve of the great offensive, the first day of the Somme.
We're watching a play centred on two of those men, Bradford Pals Bert Ingram and Alfred Longshaw. They survived the bloody slaughter of that day, and acquitted themselves well in the fighting that followed. But before the year was out, those two youngsters were to dread another dawn, sentenced to die by firing squad for desertion.
Their story is the starting point for Mark Hayhurst's powerful new play, which imagines backgrounds, characters and motives for the boys, and for Bert's family back home in Salford.
The two privates are beautifully portrayed: David Moorst's Alfred is a lively, funny working-class intellectual, spouting Shakespeare in his lunch break and encouraging his work-mate to be his own man, thinking and acting for himself. Tom Gill's stout-hearted Bert, though older in real life, seems the junior partner in their relationship, especially in the madcap scheme they dream up to travel away from the action disguised as Americans. Except that when the end comes, it is Bert who finds the stillness and the strength to bring comfort to Alfred, as hooded and afraid, they face the rifles of their own comrades.
The Minerva set, by Paul Wills, has a muddy trench-side filling the stage between the stately doors [of the War Graves Commission?]. The action begins with a deafening barrage as the regiment charges over the top. Jonathan Munby's staging weaves the home-front and the Somme seamlessly together, the men carrying furniture and props and mingling, so many ghosts, with the folks back in Lancashire. The polished floor-boards are soaked by the chill rain on the Western Front. Practical, pacy and deeply moving.
There are many excellent performances, including Tim Preston as the neighbour and friend who cannot bring himself to tell the truth to the Inghams, and Freddie Watkins as Conker, who finally does so, having sat with Bert in that long last night.
Amelda Brown is Bert's sorrowing mother, desperately trying to dissuade his illiterate father [a superbly defiant Phil Davis] from his plan to have the truth carved on their son's headstone.
The words that inspired the play, and uniquely amongst all those executed in the Great War reveal the manner of his dying and his father's feelings: “SHOT AT DAWN / ONE OF THE FIRST TO ENLIST / A WORTHY SON OF HIS FATHER”
The closing moments of the piece poignantly echo that inscription. The two prisoners, hooded and bound to wooden uprights, are shot as dawn breaks. Then the mood is wrenched back to the jolly party that sent Bert off to the front - “like the King of England”. A brief word of farewell with his father, who is left staring after him as he is heard singing - “pure, like a skylark” - Hail Smiling Morn. And on the old man's face, are etched the sorrow and the dogged struggle of the “eight years in limbo” which followed.
production photograph by Manuel Harlan