The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War has sparked a great deal of worldwide interest over the past few months. Not only the moving ceremonies held in France that we all watched on television, but also there have been many local exhibitions, services, and other commemorations up and down the country, bringing back the reality of the horror of that war to today’s generations. Last year the Royal and Derngate added to this remembrance with the excellent new adaptation of Pat Barker’s Regeneration. Daniel Bye had also explored some aspects of the effects of war in his Story Hunt that we enjoyed last year; and now he is back in Northampton with a new project, assembling a play from the both the knowledge and indeed the understandable ignorance of war from the performers, drawn from workshops with both the Royal and Derngate’s Actors’ Company and their Youth group.
There’s hardly anyone left alive who experienced first-hand the 1914-18 War. There aren’t many whose parents did. Therefore it’s not surprising that the day to day details of what life was like during that period are becoming progressively sketchier. Of course we still have literature and film to remind us, original news coverage and a wealth of history books, but there’s nothing like actually listening to someone who was there to have the utmost authority on the subject. So our understanding of what happened in the war is inevitably going to decrease in the future, and it’s constructive and educational – as well as dramatic – to have plays like Aftermath being created to fill that gap. By participating in such plays both as performers and audience, we remember the sacrifice made by those who died in that war; and we try our hardest to create a world where such a war no longer exists – sadly, not always successfully.
The youth company and the adult company dovetail together perfectly to bring together a deliberately stagey experience. Whilst the older members of the cast sit silently on their chairs at the beginning of the play, groups of young people scattered around the auditorium start having a conversation about what the First World War means to them – and to what extent they were confused by the names, dates and facts about both World Wars. It was a brilliant theatrical device! When the initial conversation started in one of the boxes I was really taken in at first – if it hadn’t been for the fact that they were being subtly illuminated I really would have thought it was a question of young people not knowing how to behave in the theatre! My bad. I think there were a couple of audience members who hadn’t twigged and got shirty at the youngsters, so well done for conning them so convincingly!
This led into the opening scene, a vaudevillian music hall act hosted by Frank and Maisie, with a lot of I Say, I Say, I Say about it – think The Good Old Days meets Passchendaele. Juxtaposing old fashioned comedy with the general tragedy of war shows that, often, humour is the only way you can get through the really bad times. It also allows a continuation of the already established blurred relationship between what’s the play and who’s the audience, as our two Music Hall stars are very much doing it for the crowd, like any comedians. It also became the main structure holding the whole play together.
It turns out that the two kids who first start talking are the grandchildren of an older man and his lady friend – the kids don’t seem to recognise her – who have gone back to France to try to piece together the final days of his own grandfather who died somewhere on the front and to find his grave. There they are greeted by the locals as wartime heroes themselves, so grateful are they for the sacrifices made by their liberators. As they go off on their quest, Dave the grandfather finds the grave and, in his imagination at least, is reunited with his own dying grandfather, and can himself come to terms with what happened as a result. The young people too can witness for themselves the personal aspect of what otherwise might just be a dusty history lesson.
I’d never really contemplated before the local-ness (for want of a better word) of the groups of men who went out to fight. Of course, I’ve understood the concept of regiments, and I know the stories and scenarios of the recruiting officers hiring their cannon fodder on a local basis, but it wasn’t really until I saw this play, with the scenes of friends and relatives all signing up together in the pub, mainly from Northampton, teasing each other about the uselessness of their local football team (some things never change), that I really got a sense of the camaraderie that must have been in place when whole groups of families and friends signed up together, fought together, died together, came home together. That was a very effective aspect of this play.
It’s probably the use of nearby locations that drives that local connection home all the more. There’s a scene where all the women left behind are working in the boot factory, making the boots for the soldiers on the front (that’s how Northampton made its international mark, as I’m sure you know). There’s plenty of scope for rivalry and friendship to rub along together in that factory setting. 16 year old Eddie meets 23 year old Elizabeth at the Racecourse just before he goes off to fight (they were meant to be at least 19, but a mixture of self-sacrificial heroism and official blind-eyes meant that age was really no barrier). They swap details and agree to write to each other. You see Eddie go off to war and get injured, whilst still optimistically writing to Elizabeth (although not to his mother, apparently!) Whether or not he were to survive the war, there would be no future for them – she looked on it as no more than some kind of civic duty, whereas he held the promise of a future together as being a driving force to cling on to. These scenes were performed with great sensitivity and were very moving.
Meanwhile, back at the front, there’s a field hospital run by a no-nonsense Matron and new girl Elsie has arrived to start working as a nurse, with woefully little experience but lots of keenness. It’s not long before Elsie is an old-hand at dispensing care. We see Eddie, trying to maintain his good humour, the poor man with the appalling gas gangrene who’s not going to hang on much longer, and Dmitri, the communist, applying political theory and logic to a desperate humanitarian situation where you can’t make sense of anything. And we meet George. There were a number of personal sagas that we caught a glimpse of during Aftermath – but maybe none more acute than the story of George, wounded at war with a complete loss of memory, so that he could not identify himself to the medical team caring for him. Back home his wife grieves at his presumed death, but George’s cousin Enoch steps in, looks after her and their children, and they slowly become romantically attached. There’s a beautiful scene where she glories in the fact that Enoch has bought her an engagement ring and they are blissfully happy together. Then George reappears, his memory having finally returned, to discover his wife is now with his cousin. Do they revert to the original relationships, or do they stick with Plan B?
There were no programmes available so I can’t identify any particular performers with their roles – although I did recognise a few faces from previous productions, and I’m sure the grandfather was played by Mr Church from the old independent china shop on St Giles’, sadly no longer in operation. Members of both companies gave excellent performances and Mrs Chrisparkle and I were both particularly impressed at the standard of the singing – there’s a lot of musical harking back to those old wartime numbers. There were just three performances of Aftermath, but the memory of some of those personal stories will linger for a long time. A very moving and rewarding production.