“The Accrington Pals”- Keele Drama Society review
Keele Drama Society kick off the year with a play packed with its newest members, but can it stand on its own two feet without the society’s veteran actors and actresses?
I am always slightly apprehensive about Keele Drama Society productions set in K2, simply because it is such an intimate space. I remember seeing Huw Brentnall’s 2015 production of Quiz in K2. The venue worked to insane effect and added to the thrill of watching the quiz show’s host snap into a complete mental breakdown paired with hostages and a gun. Truth be told, I think that Keele Drama Society’s The Accrington Pals (written by one of the society’s founders, Peter Whelan) could have done with a little less intimacy and a little more space to add to the scope of the First World War. That said, the show is most certainly a valiant effort from the society and ties very nicely into the centennium of the end of WW1.
If anything, most of the show’s faults do not lie with the society’s current line up, but with the initial state of the script itself. It is a little difficult to summarise the plot because there is not much of one outside of a few local, young men from Accrington going to war, with a further examination of those who were left back home (primarily, the women). Each character has at least one moment in which they can shine, and the cast milk those moments excellently. Once the ‘pals’ leave town, the plot is sliced into two halves and starts to meander a tad (though never, I should say, for too long as for it to become boring). The script would have benefitted from Whelan picking one of the two perspectives and really delving into it; both are interesting enough. The dialogue, however, is consistently strong, with some very powerful lines thrown in for good measure.
That is how criticism surrounding the play tends to have fallen into place: in every drawback there is a strength. For example, the set was cumbersome and caused unfortunately long scene changes, yet the four square pillars with a different backdrop on each side was an interesting idea that did not look too shabby. There was a slight charm in watching the table constantly wobble (it is unfortunate to say that this production may be the society’s staple prop’s last outing). The tech was standard, but did the job suitably well and was effective enough. It should also be noted that each criticism listed here is a minor negative that contributes to a show in which it is evident that a lot of love and care was placed.
In fact, the only significant drawback I could really point out without the counteractation of a positive is that the show felt very static in places. The Accrington Pals is at its best when it feels alive, such as when Sarah (Lucy Peck) and Bertha (Anastasia Claridge) are dancing to music within scenes while other characters discuss the events taking place at hand. A few times characters were stood in lines on stage, talking. That is not to say that every scene needed movement, and the stillness of May (Emily Tunnicliffe) strengthened her characterisation very nicely, especially when juxtaposed against the vibrant movement of Sarah and Bertha. It is clear that the strengths of directors Mark Reynolds and Magda Boryn lie in tying everything together and presenting a show of quality as opposed to the intricacies of positioning each cast member. With that in mind, I place part of the fault on the small venue, and would like to defend the choice of venue by stating that Keele lacks strong, available venues, especially for a play set in a 1910s village and on the frontlines of war. With a little more space I trust that Reynolds and Boryn could have toyed with movement that was a little more interesting.
Of course, this matters little when watching the performances of the cast, of which there is no weak link. Tunnicliffe is the star of the show, whose performance as May boasts a strength to the character that is undermined by subtly placed vulnerability. William Blanchard’s performance as Rivers also carries an air of subtlety that leans towards the unhinged. Not that every character requires subtlety, for Ysanne van der Velden’s performance as Annie possesses very little of it but is still absolutely brilliant nonetheless. In addition, Aidan Kelly’s Arthur is not given enough to do, for the actor is fantastic for every second of his somewhat short time on stage. My favourite characters still remain Sarah and Bertha, who bring an element of light heartedness and comedy to the show. Peck and Claridge were fantastic choices for the roles, and possess a great deal of chemistry that will hopefully be explored in future productions.
Perhaps my biggest gripe with the cast is their projection, though in an intimate venue such as K2 this was not always an issue. Gemma Larkin plays the slightly meek Eva very well yet would benefit from speaking up slightly when not facing the audience. Again, only a small criticism. Ultimately, the show lack any particular area in which it is truly weak. Sure, there is a line or two when the actors stumble a little over each other, and at times the choices of background sound is a little odd (or plays too early), but the overall experience of the show is a positive one. If there is anything to take away from it, it is that this year’s crop of fresh Keele Drama Society actors have strong acting careers ahead of them in the society, and that the near-future holds many high-quality shows.
If you are going to see anything this weekend other than a Remembrance Parade, then it certainly would not harm you to see The Accrington Pals.