Review by Neil Beardmore. Writer, artist.
Any doubts that the effects of the Great War did not filtrate right through to the heart of England are quickly dispelled in Pepper’s Ghost latest production of the celebrated community plays of the Eighties, devised by champions of the genre, Roy Nevitt and Roger Kitchen: ‘Nellie’ and ‘Your Loving Brother Albert’, and directed with her usual panache by Rosemary Hill.
‘Nellie’, taken from diaries of the time of New Bradwell’s Nellie Smith, is the story of the women’s lot during World War 1. We are soon transported to their confinement in a factory where they make uniforms – ten women machining by hand, singing as they go – and of course, run by a man. The link between uniforms, women now out working, and the obvious lack of young men – apart from the odd window cleaner that is - is made between their rise back home and their young men out fighting.
Any theatre producer will tell you how hard it is to find actors who can also sing, so it’s a real treat to see such talent in the lead: Erienne Kate Barr as Nellie, and Georgia Tillery as her friend Effie, are a tour de force, bringing us a musical score reminiscent of the time, and providing a narrative to Nellie’s diary events – and more than amply supported by a ‘choir’ of Nellie’s other friends. The profusion of delightful songs transports us back to the Musical Hall of the time, especially on bike rides and horse and cart trips to places as far flung as Newport Pagnell! But it is the tender scene where Effie tells Nellie that she is going to Canada to be married that grips us dramatically the most – the soft lilac lighting, the tight script, and restrained performance remind us of the young women whose young men marched away.
‘Your Loving Brother Albert’ follows what we now understand in retrospect as the typical male story: a young man who lies about his age to get into the army. Taken from letters written home by Albert French of Wolverton, we are transported through a young man’s wonder at training at the aptly named: ‘Devil’s Punchbowl’ through to the usual parade ground antics, walking out with a young woman (chaperoned of course!),inoculation, and on into action at the trenches; Charlie Woolford ably leads us through Albert’s rapid maturity to a dramatic end. The cameo role of his mother by Theresa Kelleher brings out welcome humour: will he be able to get washed properly in the trenches – have clean underwear? Other lines: ‘Fall in and follow me . . . and we’ve trained you up. Now we’re going to use you . . .’ bring out the robotic nastiness of what was to become the first technological war.
The Radcliffe School Theatre was used to its best: rows of chairs were pleasingly not evident – instead, a vaudeville atmosphere with round tables for the audience, aptly covered in bright red to reflect the poppies in the backdrop. Musical arrangements by Shahnaz Hussain were always slick and well delivered all round, with performances by the legendary Brad Bradstock, accompanied by Shahnaz and Dave Crawford. To round it off a special recital by MK Poet Laureate Mark Niel of his poem about Albert French – performed with a poignancy appropriate to the occasion.
Nellie and Albert would have been chuffed: all this down to expert overall production and direction from Rosemary Hill who again delivers us a visual delight.