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Mr Monkey sees The Accrington Pals at the Royal Exchange Theatre

Venue : Royal Exchange Theatre
Start date: 17th January 2013
End date : 16th February 2013
Visit date : 21st January 2013
Mr Monkey looking at photos in the Education Lounge dugout
Mr Monkey looking at the The Accrington Pals poster outside the theatre
Mr Monkey scampered into the Royal Exchange Theatre for the press night of The Accrington Pals.

He checked the poster outside, then strolled in to collect his tickets. He was interested to find out that the Education Lounge had been changed from the Rats' Lair of Rats Tales into a dugout on the Somme (he suspects the rats were the same ones as before), with photos and quotes from the war poets. He was also very interested in the display cabinets outside the lounge, which were stocked with photos and posters relating to Accrington and the Accrington Pals regiment. It's not often you see pictures of places mentioned in a play while you're waiting to see it.

A month after the start of the First World War, the mayor of Accrington, responding to the call from Kitchener to build the "New Army", recruited more than thousand men from Accrington and District to form the 11th (Service) Battalion (Accrington) East Lancashire Regiment. Within 10 days 1112 officers and men had signed up. After training in Accrington, Caernarfon, Rugely, Ripon and the Salisbury Plain, the Accrington Pals were sent to guard the Suez Canal in late 1915.

In March 1916 they were transfered to France for the start of the Somme offensive. 720 Accrington Pals went over the top between 7.20 and 7.40 on the morning of July 1st; by 8.00 250 were dead and 350 wounded or missing.

Eva (Emma Lowndes) is almost affectionate as Tom (Robin Morrisey) leaves to train with the Pals  (Royal Exchange Theatre production photo)
Peter Whelan's play, The Accrington Pals, first performed in 1981, covers the period from the recruitment of the Pals to a few days after the beginning of the battle of the Somme, when rumours of the disaster are filtering back to Accrington. Almost all of the the play takes place in Accrington and lets us into the lives of those left behind, for some a period of opportunity, for others their lives are put on hold.

The period and place is clearly set in a northern town, with the entire stage covered in cobbles and with tram lines (used at points for moving scenery) running across them. Mr Monkey was really impressed by the way it actually rained on the stage, though this did cause problems later on when the cobbles became too slippy for some of the cast. He was pleased to see that the rain was kept on the stage and did not reach the audience. The Royal Exchange's usual policy of movable multi-use scenery sees the scene shift swiftly from a market stall to the parlour of a house and back again.

All the cast were convincing in their roles. Accents were particularly good, as the cast had received elocution lessons from Accrington schoolchildren (and Martin McKellan, the voice and dialect coach). This is another ensemble production which works because all the cast are excellent in convincingly portraying a tight-knit community where everyone knows everyone else's business. The change in atmosphere between the optimism and cheeriness while the Pals are in training and the despair when the truth about the first day of the Somme comes out is marvellously executed; Mr Monkey doubts there was a dry eye in the house.

Mr Monkey thought the production was brilliantly atmospheric, with a surprising amount of humour given the grimly Northern setting and the inevitably traumatic ending. Mr Monkey thinks it seems odd to describe a play about the snuffing out of a generation as a good night's entertainment, but it is.

Laura Elsworthy, Rebecca Callard, Sarah Belcher, Sarah Ridgeway and Emma Lowndes receive bad news (Royal Exchange Theatre production photo)

The Accrington Pals runs until February 16th 2013.

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