‘The Accrington Pals’ at the Royal Exchange

accpals

Peter Whelan’s The Accrington Pals was first produced in 1981, when the expected mode of First World War Drama was something like Days of Hope or The Monocled Mutineer, sagas of class oppression and futility.
Whelan’s play (now revived in a very good production at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre) could have been more of the same, since at its heart is the crashing  ironic contrast between the idealism in 1914 that in Accrington, a small town, inspired enough recruits to form a whole ‘Pals’ battalion, and the catastrophe of the first day of the Somme, which saw 235 out of the 700 men slaughtered, and another 350 wounded. What makes the play notable, and very much worth reviving, is that it avoids the easy simplicities of ‘anti-war’ propaganda, but instead provides a credible and complex account of working-class lives.
I’ve never visited Accrington, but in Lancashire a few weeks ago, I was chatting to my taxi-driver (originally from Pakistan). I explained that I’d moved up North to Huddersfield, and really liked it there. He told me he lived in Accrington. ‘It’s nice there too,’ he said, ‘but a bit rough.’
The same was probably true a hundred years ago. The opening scene of the play introduces us to May, putting up her stall in the cobbled marketplace, while the rain pours down (as it does more or less incessantly through the Manchester production). She is a woman formed by the hard environment, who has suppressed the softer feelings that might make her vulnerable. Her cousin and lodger, Tom, enlists with the ‘Pals’, and she finds herself forced to acknowledge the intensity of her feelings for him.
What I like about the play is its suggestion that the disruption of war shook up the everyday lives of people, and thereby tantalisingly showed them possibilities beyond their usual existences. The men become boyishly excited by the prospect of training, and of seeing the wider world, while the women take on new roles and new confidence. For them the War becomes (what I think it was for many) a catalyst, speeding up the processes of social change, for good or ill. May (acted with bony authenticity at Manchester by Emma Lowndes) moves with the moment and gradually stops repressing her sexual feelings – but Tom is killed, and a vision lets her imagine the full horror of the event. At the end of the play, she is once again erecting her market stall, back where she started, but now in a life without possibilities.
My description probably makes the play sound grim, but it’s  full of life, humour and insight; this production makes you care about the characters. If you’re near Manchester, go and see it.

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4 Comments

  1. John R Cornwall
    Posted January 30, 2013 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    I’m just back from visiting Accrington and it is as rough as the taxi driver indicated. Gone has the sense of community, the sense of everyone knowing everyone else and perhaps more importantly, everyone else’s business, and the sense of cosiness and familiarity when walking around the town. In these grim economic times (or ought we to say politically idealogical times) shops are closed and May’s market stall has long since been superseded by £1 stalls and knick knack stalls. I remember the outdoor market well from my youth and the splendid variety of goods on offer, particularly one huge haberdasherry shop I visited every Saturday morning with my Grandmother whose intricacies never failed to delight me. The Accrington Pals are still spoken of but rather quietly these days and only by a certain generation, the youth being more concerned with iPads and iPhones and those endless combinations of Xbox and ps3 computer games. I shall certainly make my way to see this play.

    • Posted January 30, 2013 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

      Gone has the sense of community, the sense of everyone knowing everyone else and perhaps more importantly, everyone else’s business, and the sense of cosiness and familiarity when walking around the town.

      Though after reading Robert Roberts’ account of prewar Salford in The Classic Slum, one wonders whether we romanticize the lost communitarianism of these industrial towns a bit too much. One man’s cosiness is another’s stifling tribalism.

  2. Posted January 30, 2013 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Accrington, a small town, inspired enough recruits to form a whole ‘Pals’ battalion

    OK, I’m being pedantic here, but technically that’s not quite right. Only one of of the battalion’s four companies was actually from Accrington; the rest were from other small towns in East Lancashire such as Burnley, Chorley and Blackburn. I mention this only because I feel those other communities get rather short-changed when the AP are mentioned.

    • Posted January 30, 2013 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

      Fair comment, Alan, but this point is actually made in the Royal Exchange programme. And to be fair to Whelan, though, ‘The Accrington, Burnley, Chorley and Blackburn Pals’ wouldn’t have made a very good title.


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