by Peter Whelan.

Royal Exchange Theatre St Ann’s Square M2 7DH To 16 February 2013.
Mon-Fri 7.30pm Sat 8pm Mat Wed 2.30pm & Sat 3.30pm.
Audio-described 9 Feb 3.30pm.
BSL Signed 15 Feb.
Captioned 7 Feb.
Runs 2hr 40min One interval.

TICKETS: 0161 833 9833.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 27 January 2013.

Tough, granite and heartbreaking.
After this superb production of Peter Whelan’s 1981 drama exploring lives around a First World War battalion of friends, director James Dacre should revive Whelan’s engrossing post-World War II story A Russian in the Woods. Pals, while impressive, usually seems emotionally distant. Not here. Dacre’s revival is an emotional bombshell, its implications exploding like shrapnel, shattering the idea of ‘pals’ though love and class.

As Charles Balfour’s lighting glistens on the rain-soaked cobbles of Jonathan Fensom’s street scene, and Tom and May argue as they set-up her fruit and veg stall before dawn, the harsh setting is reflected in the love of men and women. The easy love of one pair, the non-love of Annie and Arthur, her discontent taken-out on their boy. And May’s unacknowledged love for Tom.

The sternness of working-class life is evoked by the opening ‘knocker-up’, before being nightmarishly disturbed by war. Whelan’s strong female roles are more than ever the focus, the women sitting unaware as their men speak to them the letters they’ll receive from the trenches. Home furniture stands amid glimpses of battle, while the near-bare stage and a shaft of light boldly contrast the advance at the Somme with a lone Britannia figure approaching, singing Elizabeth I’s ‘O Peaceful England’ at a Lancashire charity concert.

Simple possessions – a pigeon, a tin bath (its mix of water and blood emptied-out just as the Pals march to war), the stall itself – recall the missing men. Performances are remarkable in their energy and sense of natural completeness: Simon Armstrong as the Sergeant Major who promises to look after Tom and takes on the ghostly character of the figures in Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’, Robin Morrissey’s Tom, an idealist mixing dreams and practicality, Brendan Charleson’s happily religious Arthur.

The women, their personalities formed by and shaping this society, are perfectly played. And Emma Lowndes, whose luminous performance invested Simon Stephens’ Port at the Exchange 15 years ago, brings an agonised intensity to May. Repulsing love, clinging to her belief in the individual’s isolation, she tragically denies herself the fuller life which war itself is wiping-out.

CSM Rivers: Simon Armstrong.
Reggie: Séan Aydon.
Annie: Sarah Belcher.
Sarah: Rebecca Callard.
Arthur: Brendan Charleson.
Bertha: Laura Elsworthy.
Ralph: Gerard Kearns.
May: Emma Lowndes.
Tom: Robin Morrissey.
Eva: Sarah Ridgeway.

Director: James Dacre.
Designer: Jonathan Fensom.
Lighting: Charles Balfour.
Sound: Emma Laxton.
Musical Director: Howard Gray.
Movement: Ann Yee.
Voice/Dialects: Martin McKellan.
Fight director: Terry King.
Assistant director: Edward Lewis.

2013-01-28 00:45:32

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