When War Secretary Lord Kitchener’s posters told them “Your country needs you”, Accrington answered the call.
The “Pals” battalions turned friends and neighbours into brothers in arms. Taking the bonds of home to the battlefield was thought good for morale.
The unforeseen consequence was the effect on the home front when the slaughter of the First World War robbed whole communities of their menfolk at a stroke.
On July 1, 1916, at the Battle of the Somme, 720 Accrington Pals went over the top. Within 40 minutes, 585 were dead, wounded or listed missing.
The inevitability of this history draws Peter Whelan’s play along with a gloomy intensity. But even if you did not know this history, the dolorous music, the muted lighting, the dull colours of the costumes all tell you this is a story which cannot end well.
Director James Dacre sets the piece starkly on a square of cobbles, criss-crossed by tram lines and grids, with copious rain falling at intervals.
The “Pals” of Whelan’s still-powerful 1981 play are not so much the men in uniform as the women in shawls, waiting for news of their men’s fate.
It’s a play about home where the women managed on a budget of ten shillings a week.
We see soldiers charging across those cobbles with bayonets fixed. When they go over the top for the Big Push, they do so by clambering over a kitchen table, rushing past one of their sweethearts from home, dressed as Britannia and singing a patriotic song.
We see pious Arthur (Brendan Charleson) wrestling with his conscience before going to do “God’s work” on the battlefield, cheeky Ralph (Gerard Kearns) seducing Eva (Sarah Ridgeway) while Tom (Robin Morrissey) rhapsodises about the comradeship he has found in the Pals.
It is Tom’s painful relationship with his second cousin May (Emma Lowndes) which is the emotional centre of the play – he the artist and idealist, she the reluctant carrier of a Victorian morality which stands between the two of them and the possibility of consummating their love.
The remarkable thing is that so much humour blossoms in this barren soil.
Delivered in dialogue full of chewy Lancastrian vowels, there is sometimes a whiff of Victoria Wood about proceedings. Bertha (Laura Elsworthy) says even her dad reckons her so plain she’s “better followed than faced”.
Rebecca Callard fizzes with feisty spirit as Sarah. Even the bitter and deranged Annie (Sarah Belcher) gives us a queasy laugh as she bullies her dim-witted charge Reggie (Sean Aydon): “Will you stand still while I hit you”.
A brilliant ensemble piece, The Accrington Pals is full of period detail – clogs on cobbles, strait-laced morality, trouble at t'mill – and yet while men, and women, go to war, it remains timelessly relevant.
The Accrington Pals runs until February 16.