With preparations well under way for next year’s First World War centenary, it would be easy to cast Peter Whelan’s 1981 play as a timely tribute to the sacrifice of millions of young men in the trenches. But this is as much a story about the women left behind. When director James Dacre emphasises the point that, actually, the war is showing up “men for creating mysteries around things”, he teases out the multilayered heart of Whelan’s touching story.
It’s such complexity which makes The Accrington Pals so fascinating. Emma Lowndes initially plays May, a fruit and veg seller with dreams of her own shop, with an almost impenetrable stiffness. But in subtly, slowly allowing her guard down when talking about the amorous advances of her sensitive younger cousin Tom (an anxious Robin Morrissey), she becomes – briefly at least – hugely endearing.
Amid the worries about how their men are faring at the front, there are moments of genuine humour. “He’s like a steamhammer,” giggles the brilliantly bluff Rebecca Callard, who plays Sarah. “If he missed me we’d have the wall down.”
But the darkness is always there, despite the best efforts of Eva, imbued with gorgeous open-hearted charm by Sarah Ridgeway. The indoor rain effect is spectacular, the slippery cobbles of the set seeming to mirror characters who are always unsteady and unsure of where life will take them. And if the soldiers are not fleshed out as much as a play called The Accrington Pals might promise, it’s the lasting thought of what might have happened next to these incredible women which is as good a measure of success as any.