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First Light/ Minerva Theatre

In reviewing this play by Mark Hayhurst who had a great success both at Chichester and the West End with Taken at  Midnight I will defer to co-Ruster Henry Elkins on the military aspects. In brief, it tells the story of two deserters from the Manchester pals Regiment – Bert Ingham and Alfred Longshawe – who enlisted early for the Great War, fought bravely in the Montauban offensive at the Somme but were shot for desertion. In parallel the drama switches to the Salford home of Bert Ingham, the family reaction to the various explanations of their son’s death and the lobbying of his illiterate father and his daughter and the Imperial War Graves Commission over his tombstone epitaph.

The play attracted praiseworthy reviews but these I did not wholly share. The main problem for me is that the time sequence between the family in Salford and the action in the Somme was wholly out of kilter. At one point it was 6 years ahead. In a film a short subtitle would explain location and time but this is impossible in the theatre. This created a confusion. Without wishing to trespass on Henry’s domain, I found the back story as revealed in the programme more interesting than the play. Why for example were the two deserters denied a friend in court and why were the Tribunal proceedings not dramatised? Instead we had a Lieutenant advising them in an ante room before the Tribunal and after it a conversation with a Major General sniffing brandy in which the same Lieutenant petitioned for clemency. Even more bizarre was the motive for the father to lobby the Imperial War Graves Commission to add the epitaph words “Shot at dawn. First of the first to enlist. A worthy son of his father”. I had some sympathy for the official for the Commission when he argued that that his son was buried like any other solder in a military grave alongside his pal and the father should be content with that. Quite why a father would want reference to being shot at dawn, so that the truth be told, was never satisfactorily explained.

There was a certain predictability to the unfurling drama.  At the interval I turned to Henry and we speculated what would happen in the second act. We more or less called it correctly and, if I read the programme, would have done totally so. Obviously we knew the deserters would be shot and there was some discussion of shell-shock in mitigation. Yet the facts were clear – the deserters were arrested on board a ship at Dieppe going to the States pretending to be Americans, not wandering around in some copse on The Somme in a bemused and confused state. In 2006 300 cases of the 346 found guilty under General Field Marshal Tribunal were retrospectively reviewed though in this case the verdict, but not the sentence of death, upheld. Their medals were never returned to the family. Again if it had been a film this would have made for a fitting ending.

The dialogue too lacked impact. The banter in the trenches and between Longshawe and the bullying Staff sergeant was droll but too often the speeches were to too leaden and long.

Despite these problems of fact and structure the drama does have a certain impact and appeal. David Moorst gives a nuanced performance as the artistic, witty but controlling Alfred, very much the senior partner of the relationship until the end when his courage deserts him and it is Bert who gets him through their final moments of life. Phil Davis as the father gave performance of authority but some of the lesser roles like his wife (why no reference to parents on the tombstone?) tended to declaim. The set with the trenches at the rear of the square stark table for the Salford family in the centre worked well.  However the play lacked the force and evocation of Oh What aLovley war.9″  it also reminded me of the now forgotten play  Hamp by John Willis where another Lancastrian a simple minded inoffensive soldier walks backwards from the action at Paschendaele  and is subsequently tried and executed for desertion  .  First Light  did not consider the issues of desertion so movingly  . In Taken at Midnight the drama revolved around a mother pleading for her son’s life in Nazi Germany in the thirties  . Parental pressure is a theme which seems to interest Mark Hayhurst  . Henry Elkins speculated that in the anniversary of the Somme he was commissioned to find a story that attracted  him for a suitable play

As ever the last word lies with our Daffers:

“Once again Murrays delivered superb food and excellent service. The linguine sea food with no cloying tomato sauce was the finest pasta I’ve eaten since I was wined, dined and seduced by a Roman Count at  Alfredo’s in the Via Veneto. I have to admit that, once in the Minerva Theatre, slumber got the better of me till I was rudely awaken by some noisy trench warfare and bombardment and silly old Daffers never really got her head round the drama. The play seemed to me to be unconvincing.”

About Tim Holford-Smith

Despite running his architectural practice full-time, Tim is a frequent theatre-goer and occasional am-dram producer. More Posts