A MAJOR new production at one of the country’s leading theatres will bring the moving story of the Accrington Pals to life for a new generation.
Peter Whelan’s play about the young men who joined up to fight for their country in the First World War and the women they left behind opens at the Royal Exchange in Manchester next week.
James Dacre, who is directing the production, said: “I am so thrilled to be working on this. It is such an emotive play which still has such a resonance today.
“Although the title implies it’s about the soldiers who went to fight, it’s really about the strength of community, how a town and its people coped when most of their men left for war and so few returned.”
The 11th Battalion East Lancashire Regiment was made up of four companies — the first company of 250 was made up of men from Accrington; the District Company from outlying towns such as Rishton, Great Harwood, Church and Oswaldtwistle; the third company from Burnley and the final company from Chorley with 1,000 men volunteering in just 10 days.
At 7.20am on July 1, 1916, the order was given for the Accrington Pals to leave the relative security of their trenches and walk towards the might of the German Army close to the town of Serre in Northern France.
By 8am, just 40 minutes later, of the 720 men who ‘went over the top’ 585 were dead, wounded or missing — the Battle of the Somme had begun.
“For the young men who joined up there was a great sense of adventure,” said James. “They little realised the horrors they were to encounter.
“The more you study the play, the more you realise the relevance it retains today, Peter Whelen wrote the play in 1981 at the time Margaret Thatcher was in her first term of office and he was conscious of the society at the time.
“A lot of the issues which were important then are still present today.
“People who haven’t seen the play before assume it’s all about the soldiers but really it’s about the rise in influence and responsiblity of the women at home.”
James and the cast have been to Accrington where they met students from Accrington Academy to get tips on the Accrington accent and James has also visited the Pals Memorial made out of Accrington brick at Serre.
“That was a particularly moving experience,” he said. “Even today you still get a sense of what happened on that fateful day.”
The Royal Exchange with its theatre in the round offers particular challenges for a director putting on Accrington Pals.
“It’s such a wonderfully intimate space,” said James who is making his debut in Manchester. “The audience is right there with you which will add to the emotion of the play.
“The play is a testament to Accrington and its people about how this small community not only coped with unimaginable horror but also bravely pulled together and organised itself as a result. We just aim to do those people proud.”
- Accrington Pals, Royal Exchange, Manchester, from Thursday until Saturday, February 16. Details from 0161 833 9833.