REVIEW: Touching tale of Accrington Pals and those they left behind

The Accrington Pals
The Accrington Pals
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THE Accrington Pals – a band of brothers fatally famous for their slaughter on the Somme in the First World War – is the title of Peter Whelan’s peculiarly women-oriented play.

The heart-wrending story, currently running at Manchester’s fantastic Royal Exchange Theatre, is not so much a tale of soldiers on the Western Front but one of their wives and families on the Home Front.

The tragedy of the Accrington Pals, a group of workmates from the mills and factories of East Lancashire who volunteered and were slaughtered in their hundreds on one terrible morning, is ripe for telling, although this play devotes only a fleeting glimpse to actual life in the trenches.

Perhaps this is because the Pals’ actual “fighting” time was savagely quick – 235 men wiped out by unforgiving German machine guns and a further 350 wounded in a merciless half hour. A true tragedy.

Featuring an impressive, predominantly young cast, the play is no less powerful for instead focusing on the women left behind, their hopes and ultimately their despair as the young men of East Lancashire met their deaths on that fateful July 1st morning of 1916.

Much has been written about the 11th Battalion East Lancashire Regiment, famously known as the Accrington Pals, but which also included “Pals” companies from Burnley, Chorley and surrounding districts.

A century on and the hurt still lingers in East Lancashire and the rest of the country at the senseless slaughter that epitomised the Western Front. My own great-uncle Thomas also served in the East Lancashire Regiment, albeit a different battalion, and was killed a year after the Somme.

But what did the women left at home feel? The play captures their journey of emotions, as early pride and patriotism quickly is stolen by uncertainty and eventual heartbreak.

Prolific television actress Emma Lowndes as the stern character of May and Sarah Ridgeway as the hopeful Eva are the two main protagonists. “Shameless” star Gerard Kearns plays Eva’s sweetheart Ralph, and his monologue to her, reflecting letters home, is one of the most emotional parts of the play.

Robin Morrisey is also excellent as the idealistic Tom, while Rebecca Callard as Sarah brings light relief in what could otherwise be a very dark story.

Based predominantly in Accrington, the set at the Royal Exchange – a rain-swept cobbled street is fantastic and the swift scene changes are expertly done.

I just wish more time had been given to the soldiers’ thoughts before the battle – generally optimistic – and the survivors’ memories after – always horrific.

That said, this is a polished, superbly acted and well-crafted play that sheds light on those left behind.

The great tragedy of the Pals battalions was when they suffered heavy losses, as Accrington’s did, a whole community was hit. Accrington was the smallest town in Britain to raise a Pals battalion and it is said that after the Somme there wasn’t a street or home that didn’t know someone who had been killed.

The play ends on this stark realisation – that women were left widows and children fatherless.

The Accrington Pals is running at the Royal Exchange Theatre, St Ann’s Square, Manchester, until February 16th. Box office 0161 833 9833.

DOM COLLIS