EARLY ONE MORNING
by Les Smith.
Octagon Theatre Howell Croft South BL1 1SB To 1 November 2014.
Mon-Sat 7.30pm except 20 Oct 5pm Mat 22, 25 Oct 2pm.
BSL Signed 30 Oct.
Post-show Discussion 27 Oct.
Runs 2hr One interval.
TICKETS: 0204 520661.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 17 October.
Alleged paths of glory lead to death and injustice.
At 5.51am on 5 September 1917, James Smith was executed. Nobody wanted to do it. But Smith had to be shot, as a moral coward, unpatriotically putting his nerves before king and country.
He didn’t believe it would happen. Twice before he’d set off home, been recaptured then punished before returning to the line. But this was his third strike and he was out. A regular soldier, joining-up well before World War I broke out, he’d fought in major conflicts. But the mud and blood-bath of Passchendaele was too much.
Michael Shelford perfectly embodies the decent man caught in machinery that cannot understand, let alone handle, the nervous impact of experiences unimaginable to most people. Sitting alone, lying on a bare prison bed, silent under investigation – until his fearful outbreak on learning his sentence – Shelford doesn’t seek sympathy though his innocence and powerlessness gain it.
Les Smith’s story of this Bolton soldier shows the doubts of officers and men involved in the court martial. As his programme-note, rather than script, describes, the firing-squad’s additional 10 days’ leave haunted one, at least, till his death in 1989. Most of the firing-squad deliberately missed and the officer first allotted to deliver the coup de grace couldn’t bring himself to fire.
Smith’s play dates from 1998; maybe some of the information in the programme has merged since then. A shame it couldn’t have been incorporated into a modified version of the script. For, while Smith’s fantasy conversations with Lizzie, his lover back home, provide variety, they are in a different world from the sharp-cut army scenes with their arguments about humanity and military necessity. It’s as if the impact of another play about Great War Lancastrians, Peter Whelan’s The Accrington Pals, from eight years earlier, hangs about the Lizzie scenes.
The links between Home and Front are integral to Whelan’s play, unlike Smith’s. His success lies in the dynamics of the immediate situation, caught in David Thacker’s in-the-round production where everyone from horse-playing recruits to conscience-troubled participants in the court-martial, come to seem as much prisoners of the situation as Private Smith himself.
Lizzie Cartwright: Jessica Biglow.
Major Watson/Chaplain: John Branwell.
Lieutenant Pierce/Lance Corporal Bradley: Tristan Brooke.
Sergeant Fielding: Colin Connor.
Lieutenant Collins/Private McKinnel: James Dutton.
Corporal JacksonPrivate Webster: Ciaran Kellgren.
Private James Smith: Michael Shelford.
Soldiers: Jordan Akkaaya, Matthew Allen, Carl Blakeley, Joseph Carter, Peter Fantham, Matt Holt, Richard Hornby, Elliot Lloyd, Michael Long, Alex Noblett, J-Jay Rocker, Tom Russell, Tarek Slater, Quentin Surtel, Nathan Unthank.
Director: David Thacker.
Designer: James Cottrell.
Lighting: Jason Taylor.
Sound: Andy Smith.
Movement/Associate director: Lesley Hutchison.
Costume: Mary Horan.
Assistant director: Alyson Woodhouse.