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Song and sentiment from the Front

09 October 2015

Roderic Dunnett on two First World War productions in church

paul cosgriff

Terror of the barrage: Alex Cosgriff as Bert Trott in The Tree of War at St Nicholas’s, Burnage

Terror of the barrage: Alex Cosgriff as Bert Trott in The Tree of War at St Nicholas’s, Burnage

AS REMEMBRANCE DAY approaches, it seems commendable of, first, a parish church and then a cathedral to have mounted world premières of full-scale musicals, to commemorate the dead of the First World War, not least those who perished at Loos, one of the most horrific battles in Belgium in 1915.

The Tree of War was the title of the musical at St Nicholas’s, Burnage, in southern Manchester, for which the book and lyrics were by the Priest-in-Charge, Rachel Mann. It positively bloomed with poetry; and her church’s east end was transformed with breathtaking economy into a phenomenally atmospheric trenches set.

I couldn’t find a designer credited; so let the praises be sung of Mann herself, the hard-worked stage manager Emily Humphrys, and the props master Amber Reece-Greenhalgh. (Most of the grim set did consist of props: sandbags, etc., and a terrifying laddered parapet over which the doomed squad finally advanced like the slow-motion ending to Blackadder Goes Forth, when Baldrick, Percy, and the rest sallied forth to their grisly end.) There wasn’t a single irrelevance in this set. Every item added to atmosphere.

As did the cast. Two friends, Bert Trott (played by Alex Cosgriff with massive sensitivity) and Greville Harcourt (who emerges immediately an officer, and plays his role with equal aptitude), meet in Harcourt’s company. At once they find that their former friendship turns tense and that their values are, to a degree, distant. Their fondness for each other even amid these tensions is clearly one of love — not a gay relationship, at least overtly (Mann sensibly leaves all doors open, like R. C. Sherriff in the Stanhope-Raleigh starry-eyed relationship in Journey’s End), but a kind of love dance.

There is, indeed, a dance element, used restrainedly, for which credit goes to Victoria Healey, a stalwart at St Nicholas’s (Jesus Christ Superstar was mounted there in 2013 with the same music director, Oliver Mills). Some of her dance blockings were inspired.

I didn’t spot a single drawback in the way the cast played this. There were special treats, such as Lucy Smith, in her early teens, quizzing her grandfather (Bert Trott, having survived, was played in old age by Mike Law). Dougie McBride had some key moments as something of an outsider figure, and took them by storm. He looked a little like an imported Gurkha or even Taliban, but remember that many soldiers from the Indian subcontinent fought in Belgium and Gallipoli: their large memorial is south of Ypres, near Messines.

Will Spence was a kind of crazed delight as the unpredictable and yet totally integrated Harry Cooper, one of the company’s Privates on Parade-like jokers; Tom Fawcett’s Alf Barber (have you ever heard so many haircut jokes?) was another. But the plum for me was young Alex Pollard as Greybridge, or Davey, the “coward” (an accusation soon dropped), and in a sense the boyish conscience of the party. He, like all the others, enunciated splendidly.

This was a musical of 22 numbers. The women’s were particularly good: Margaret Blaxley’s “Monumental Change” was an unexpected treat. McBride’s “Being a Lad” was superb. Some duet moments had the edge over the solos: at the back of the church, you heard everything in the script.

Mills’s music didn’t send me away humming, but proficient it certainly was, and well judged for this ensemble and venue. Again, most of the words (Mann’s lyrics part strong, part sentimental) came over. The lights (Richard Almond, Adam Musa) couldn’t have been better plotted: a treat for the eye from start to finish, and utterly enhancing and relevant.


I WISH the same could be said of Bristol Cathedral’s mounting of Wild Men, a play on similar themes, but especially interesting as based on a plaque in the cloister opposite which notes the names of those choristers who, little more than lads, died in 1914-18. A story was built up by the writer Samuel Bailey, focusing especially on Ernest Bird, who doesn’t appear on that plaque because he, guilt-ridden, survived.

The Bristol girl and boy choristers marched in and out to sing songs that Ernest and co. might have known. The choristers did this mostly excellently (though two front-line girls didn’t watch once), with the cathedral’s Master of the Choristers and Organist, Mark Lee, at the piano.

But the logistics were a disaster: entries and exits of 24-30 began to slow the action. Worse still, you could scarcely hear a word. I know the chancel is a difficult location to make work, but thought should have been given to drapes, simple wooden boarding, or anything that might have projected the sound out. At first, I thought it was me; so I asked the group of people in front of me. They said the same thing: “What on earth are the cast saying?”

This is the business, I’m afraid, of the director Matthew Whittle, and of the Hotel Echo theatre company itself. Frankly, because it got lost, the show didn’t work. But it could have, and still could. Back to the drawing board on projection, and also character differentiation; but Wild Men is a piece that is salvageable. As it stands, it lacks urgency, engagement, and conviction. A pity.

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