“A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic” – well, I never quite thought I’d be opening anything here with a quote from Stalin, but that’s what springs to mind when considering An August Bank Holiday Lark, which approaches its commemoration to the World War One dead by examining the minutae of life on the rural home front.
The latest production from Northern Broadsides, on tour after a run at the New Vic, spends a year in the life of a typical Lancashire village, from the carefree days of summer in 1914 – where the biggest drama might be the chickens getting loose into a neighbour’s garden – to a community ripped apart by the devastation of the Great War in a short matter of months.
Writer Deborah McAndrew weaves a tale of good and simple folk whose fates lie in faraway lands they know nothing about. What makes this work so dreadfully poignant is the charm and innocence of the community before things change forever.
The overall feel is a bit like Hobson’s Choice meets War Horse, except instead of four-legged friends we have the rushcart. Based on a tradition from Saddleworth, the rushcart was a kind of decorated float that comprised part of the Wakes week summer holiday celebrations – the highlight of the year – alongside all-male Morris dancing and folk song (the image above gives the idea). The first act is warm and gentle, as we meet our small community and settle in to their Sunday Night TV-style pace of life.
Young lovers Mary (Emily Butterfield) and Frank (Darren Kuppan) are meeting in secret, too afraid to tell her father John (the excellent Barrie Rutter, who also directs) that they would like to go public with their romance, as the Morris troupe prepare for their big day with clog dancing practice and song – the remaining cast provide the musical accompaniment. But as time goes on, some of the village’s young men give their reasons for wanting to enlist in the army. Mary’s two brothers fancy the glamour of the travel; Frank also signs up, to prove he would make a worthy husband.
The joy and laughter of the village’s pre-war life makes what comes all the more poignant, as their naive hopes that the whole business will be done before Christmas and everyone will be home safe are met with our 21st century hindsight. Although the neighbours try to keep their spirits up and life goes on, the tragedies mount up.
McAndrew’s storytelling brings to life such a quaint time – when word from the front took months, women turned heads by starting to work, and weddings were marked with a modest celebratory cake and little else, because nobody had much else – that it serves as an extremely powerful reminder of the complete and terrifying unknown that ordinary people were being helplessly led into. It’s not a blood and guts examination of war, but a subtle and extremely moving look at the butterfly effect of such horror.
A remarkable new play, beautifully performed, that stays with you long after you leave the theatre.