Review for An August Bank Holiday Lark by Deborah McAndrew and performed by Northern Broadsides in association with New Vic Theatre – Stoke. Currently on tour.
This wonderful play is about a community centred among the Lancashire cotton mills in the period leading up to August 1914 and beyond. The army recruiting bands are known to be in the area and naïve patriotism are the key words for 'joining up' and fighting for King and Country. For many young men it appears to be a promise of adventure – a foreign scrape on foreign fields and back in time for Christmas and 'won't our family be proud!?'
It was written that Europe sleepwalked into battle in the late summer of 1914. Whilst the great powers had been arming throughout the early years of the 20th Century in expectation of a European conflict, when war was actually declared on the 4th of August to the great majority it was a major shock. The shock became greater still as the stark realities kicked in and thousands of the expeditionary forces were being slaughtered on the battle fields and less experienced and rapidly trained men were enlisted to fight the continually bloody battles and replace the slaughtered across mainland Europe and beyond to the eventual loss of millions on all sides.
The strength of this play and this extraordinary production lies in the believability of its beautifully drawn characters many of whom do not actually appear on stage but are spoken of with such warmth and humour within the script and so cleverly that ultimately they become as real as those that inhabit the physical telling of the story. The unseen and often mentioned Reverend Semper could easily be standing benevolently in the wings alongside the wealthy Worsley family who have dedicated a portion of their great house to be a field hospital after the loss of one of their own sons at Ypres. On the other side of the stage the theatrical imagination conjures up the shadows of the post boy weeping copiously on the farm wall with his terrible news in hand and, conversely there is the comical image of Wally Entwhistle who was sick all over the crowd as he sat as jockey up high on the top of the Rushcart during the year of the Diamond Jubilee! Edie's invisible invalided mother is just as relevant to the depths of the story as Edie is herself as she is finally released to start a brave new life in Manchester after the tragic death of her brothers Ted and Will.
The twelve strong Northern Broadsides cast works tremendously well through dramatic strength and agility – those Morris dances are a mighty workout – and the natural portrayal of each character with utter conviction and subtlety of performance makes the audience fall in love with each and every one of them until by the first half one is under their spell and – by fizzin' 'eck – one actually feels for each as if they were family. In so doing one knows that – to theatrically paraphrase - 'All that is Well is not going to end Well. So enraptured were the Derby audience that many sat to watch the Rushcart being dissembled during t' interval and clapped along to the live music played by the female cast!
So lots of humour and establishment of characters and their relationships inhabit the first half and the second half, all naturally becomes darker in emotional tone as the boys go off to war. The theatrical work is about how the Great War affects a close community and its traditions and all the while the dramatic focus stays in the Greenhill community as it is hit by tragedy after tragedy. Occasionally the darkness is lit by hope and new social beginnings, with a reconciliatory marriage party and more globally in the rise of the Suffragettes and women taking over traditional male roles in the cotton mills as well as revised relationships with maimed survivors returned from the front. The mix of grief and happiness when gentle hero Frank Armitage (Darren Kuppan in a terrifically understated and sympathetic performance) finally gets to hold his new born son is an unforgettable emotional moment that will stay will me forever.
An August Bank Holiday Lark is directed by Barrie Rutter the founder and artistic director of the internationally acclaimed Northern Broadsides and Rutter appears throughout Deborah McAndrew's play as the Squire – John Farrar. His central performance is utterly believable as the very likeable but emotionally entrenched and jug of beer pre-occupied father of Ted and William and confident daughter Mary – exquisitely played by Emily Butterfield.
In a cast of twelve vibrant players – each required to dance and sing and play a variety of folk music instruments and act with the Lancashire accents of the piece there wasn't a weak link and each was so well drawn and portrayed that the audience invested in all the deep emotions from curtain up to the very end with spontaneous applause throughout. It was almost as if the modern day British audience were craving the warmth and unity of families and communities, dramatically depicted from the early part of the 20th Century. This was despite their crippling hardships and hard won hopes and the mutuality of each separate reality holding on to every last drop of emotion and socially dependent depiction. This was a drama that gripped the heart and the soul of the Derby Theatre audience and celebrated the story until the very end. Fizzin' Great!!!! Get your tickets now and invest in a gorgeous piece of theatre before it goes.