For those of you who pay little attention to such things, racing at Haydock Park and the footie World Cup are very time consuming, many Brits have been commemorating that little bash in Belgium of a century ago. Forgive the flippancy, but its bloody awfulness is beyond the comprehension of most of us. World War Two makes some sense, given that Hitler marched into Poland, but World War One seems mainly distant mud and mayhem, trenches and slaughter, and a plethora of consummately gifted poets. Its centenary has changed all that. BBC One did a brilliant dramatisation called 37 days, marking the time from an unfortunate assassination to declaration of war. I rarely praise the BBC but that, and a couple of others, was worth the licence fee on their own. And everywhere somebody, somewhere, is marking the date. 1914. The year the world went inexorably dark, to misquote Sir Edward Grey. It is hardly surprising that one of the best dramatic companies in the area decided to get in on the act. Dunstable Rep did their bit for the war effort, or at least for that collective remembrance which constantly stills the heart, and they did it proud.
Devised and directed by Angela Goss, Lest We Forget was both clever and evocative. Clever because it effortlessly mixed the horrors with the humdrum and evocative because of its small Yorkshire market town setting. Rather than watching history we became part of it as ordinary folk lived through the massive upheaval to their lives. Best illustrated by the fading filmed backdrop of an English summer day on the cusp of relentless guns, A Perfect Day, emotions were constantly toyed with. Interspersed with a variety of songs from a century ago and genuine letters to and from the front, Miss Goss’s seventeen strong cast, beautifully disciplined, etched small scale tales onto a global stage. From the colourful music hall to the bleak trenches we could almost smell, as well as see, this past.
In such a collective show it is almost unfair to single anyone out. But since when was I fair? Besides, the show is written to allow it. William (Sam Rowland) and Mary (Grace Reinhold-Gittins) are star-crossed young lovers and Fred (Anthony Bird) and Rose (Stephanie Overington) are the second, slightly older, romantic twosome. One boy dies, the other seriously wounded. The essence of a bloody war wrapped up in two small town tales. It is writ large on village memorials all over England, and elsewhere. All four actors gave first class dramatic portrayals that totally gripped and the central twosome, William and Mary, practically tore your heart out for sincerity and depth far beyond their years. And Susan Young’s Anne (William’s mother) turned in an equally impressive performance of depth and dignity. I like suffering and troubled women, only onstage of course, and Miss Young played hers to perfection.
My minder, a very nice no nonsense lady who takes very few prisoners, threatened me with her own personal version of trench warfare if I suggested even a smidgeon of nitpicking. So I won’t. Except to say that I would have preferred that seventeen strong cast to change their own set, and putting up a video of music hall star Lily Morris, as the actress playing her sang the same song, was a mistake. I could not take my eyes off the Edwardian original. It was only when she was faded out that I realised what a good job Deborah Cheshire was doing. If I had been her I would have thrown a rehearsal strop.
Nit picking over, a couple more plaudits even if an excess gets a bit boring. Except for the company. Barbara Morton (Edith) sang beautifully, Liz Blower was a delightful Marie Lloyd, Phil Baker (Arthur) was exceptionally good as the music hall compere, very Leonard Sachs, and the soldier solo in the trenches from Bert (Dave Hillman) was a stroke of directorial genius. A plaintive single voice after raucous, false bravado, singing. One of many moments in this excellent show which totally touched the heart.
I could go on but I won’t. Alan Goss cleverly staged it, accommodating set, nice boxes and a spread of poignant poppies, and Fred Rayment and Graham Elliott provided all the important light and sound. Vital in this episodic piece and I doubt if they put an inch, let alone a foot, wrong. I loved the way the back picture diagonally changed from colourful English summer country to grey desolate Belgian landscape. It summed the evening up in a moment. Chris Young was musical director and, to my untrained ear, he and his sidekick never put a note wrong. And one of those many right notes was in the final graveside ballad to William McBride, their fallen soldier. It may have been rich in theatrical licence but, by God, it was even richer in dramatic punch. The vigorous company singing, and the reason for it, literally tore your heart out.
I think I have said that somewhere but, as I have also said, this Lest We Forget toyed with your emotions. 1914. Remember the date. Angela Goss, magnificently mixing her team, ensured that at least for a while that we do not forget. It is the least that those lost anonymous souls deserve and I praise her for it. Roy Hall
Wendy Says: This was so good it does not deserve a single nitpick, not even a smidgeon of one.