INTIMATE, HUMBLE: THE BEST COMMEMORATION
The title comes from Philip Larkin’s poem MCMXIV, evoking the rural England of 1914 as young men queued, as if at a football match, to enlist. A novelty, an adventure, heralding not only their individual deaths but that of an old world – of “farthings and sovereigns/ dark-clothed children at play called after kings and queens /Never such innocence, never before or since…” After the brittle dated cynicism of Oh What a Lovely War Deborah McAndrew’s play for Northern Broadsides and the New Vic feels like a humbler, stronger, more decent commemoration of WW1. Its tour continues but I hope, before 2018 , it finds its way to London.
It is quintessentially North-Western. Actually, I sometimes wonder why they bothered putting up the Angel of the North at all, when they’d already got Barrie Rutter: founder-seraph of Northern Broadsides, equally ironclad and loomingly gritty. I last saw him roaring demonically in Rutherford and Son under Jonathan Miller: here again he stands at the centre of a community, both directing and playing bluff bossy widower Farrar, squire of the fictional Greenmill Spinners Morris . They’re mill-workers on Wakes Week, preparing for the “Rushcart” festival. This is based on (and the choreographer Conrad Nelson trained by) the real Saddleworth Morris who revived a pre-war tradition. They build a towering house of rushes on a cart and dance it through the streets each year in clog-stamping routines. Farrar has two sons keen to enlist, and a daughter Mary (a gentle, golden Emily Butterfield) who loves young Frank Armstrong. Farrar disapproves, not least because the lad’s mother let her hens raid his flower-garden just when he needed good blooms to decorate his dancing-hat.
Thus it begins in playful vein, weedy young Tweddle excoriated as a “daft gobbin”, villagers quarrelling and courting and believing “It won’t touch us up here”. The Morris practises, old Farrar berating nimble Alan for “unnecessary embellishment” and mourning the good old days of Victoria’s Jubilee when things were done properly: good to acknowledge that 1914 had its own nostalgias. In a tremendous, heart-shaking, stampingly united joyful Act 1 finale, with the lasses on fiddle and whistle and accordion, they build and decorate and stamp and sing their Rushcart round the stage in wild floral hats. It gets you in the guts. In Oxford, the very ice-cream seller danced featly down the aisle at the interval.
Such communities were military volunteers: young Ted says “Don’t know what this war’s about but there’s ideas in it, big ideas” and welcomes an escape from the tedium and sicknesses of millwork. The young men come home from training on 48 hours leave for Mary’s wedding: in a striking moment they dance at first blithely, then move to morris stick-work, but the staves become rifles and they march away. Back home the women live on, pregnant, anxious, taking on men’s jobs at the mill. Angry that many will find no husbands, one bitter maiden hands the white feather to shame a young father into filling another grave. Ironically, it’s the same feather they all bickered over when the hens trashed Farrar’s garden: bringing him a peace-offering, Mrs Armstrong tartly observes that she’d let her chickens destroy his flower-garden again “if only I could still live in a world where such things mattered!”
The worst bereavement is met with an utter, unemphatic, wrenching stillness from the patriarch, and the curtain call is
sombre. They sing the Rushcart song quietly once more, as the whole cast in plain clothes bear a banner:
We remember them.
box office 01865 305 305 http://www.oxfordplayhouse.com/ to Saturday
TOURING Derby, Cheltenham, Kingston, Oldham to 24 June
http://www.northern-broadsides.co.uk in collaboration with New Vic