There’s a smell of rushes as you enter the Viaduct theatre and dappled lighting across a traverse arrangement. We’re in a Lancashire Larkrise to Candleford: pre-war nostalgia, but Up North.
Do you feel you know everything there is to know about WW1? I do! The white feathers, King’s shilling, ‘it’ll be over by Christmas’ and Tipperary being a long way are part of our national DNA. This year, of course, we are constantly being reminded. So it’s going to take something pretty drastic to shock us from our complacency that we already know it all – and wake us up to what WW1 really was.
While I rate Deborah McAndrew’s writing, and think the songs and dancing work well (as in Littlewood’s Oh What a Lovely War) I find this a safe essay on WW1, marred by occasional bombastic direction and self-indulgent performances. Which isn’t to say it isn’t full of good things – music, dancing in clogs, some amazing props and great performances – but the experience in the theatre confirms assumptions already held, lacking urgency and resolving as neatly and tidily as the folk tune cadences and dancers’ bows.
The songs and the dancing are glorious. I didn’t know it before, but I’m now a fan of wooden clog dancing. Floor-shaking ensemble demonstrations rock the Viaduct Theatre. The cast is phenomenal. Pitch perfect singing, dancing and playing instruments are a tribute to Music and Dance Director, Conrad Nelson. They create an aural tapestry to match the work of these Lancashire spinners whose cultural traditions are both celebrated and mourned in this piece.
Such set-pieces as the creation of a giant ‘rush-cart’ to pull up hill as part of the ‘wakes’ weeks – the annual festival when traditional music and dance are practised – is a tradition going back centuries. It would be a toughened audience indeed that didn’t applaud such a collective expression of human joy and community.
There are some attractive central relationships. Frank (Kuppan) is a rogue but he loves Mary (Butterfield), the Squire’s daughter, and with reason – the whole stage lights up with Butterfield’s twinkling smile. There’s a subtle interaction between the hollow-eyed schoolteacher (Hatfield) and her passion-unspoken for Edward Farrar (Quarton) and a comedy pairing of William Farrar (Burman) and Susie Hughes (Redding) that’s artfully delivered.
There’s also some great comedy moments – often provided by dialect and idiom. Of inappropriately gaping dancing arms: ‘I can see right through to the middle of next week!’ It is employed, however, at times like a fog horn. Audibility isn’t a problem, particularly in the traverse, and the blasting delivery becomes an indulgent irritant to match the Squire’s (Rutter’s) whistle, confirming the prejudice that we Northerners talk too loud.
But as the clouds of war gather, and the tell-tale signs that we have learnt to recognise at fifty paces start to accumulate, that same auto-response that makes us tap our toes to the clogs and accordion should summon an anxiety for the fate of our protagonists and a pity for the horror of it all. It doesn’t. Why? You know you should feel wretched, but you don’t. The dancing has stopped, and that feels the biggest shame.
Which is probably the point. This play could kick-start a run on Morris-dancing classes and drive us all to our rush-carts and may-poles and a jolly good thing too. The Halifax audience loved the show, and I am sure it will, and should, play to packed houses everywhere, taking a bit of Lancashire to the rest of the UK.