Writer: Les Smith
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
Early One Morning, written by Les Smith, is a companion piece toJourney’s Endthat opened the current season at The Octagon. The plays share a common theme of the atrocity of World War 1 and feature many of the same cast members. Smith’s play, being less familiar than the classic, has a freshness as well as a strong local resonance and the additional theme of injustice.
The play is based on the true story of Boltonian Private James Smith (Michael Shelford) a decorated soldier who despite being injured in the trenches (actually buried alive) was shot for desertion. It is a slow boil production; which may be just as well as the closing sequence, in which an increasingly panicky Smith is prepared for execution and shares his final fags and whiskey with his reluctant comrades, is so heartbreaking that it is almost unbearable to watch.
The early parts of the play set out the procedural matters in what is referred to as the dance towards death. The trial of Private Smith is enacted and some of his personal history set out with his tentative courtship of a nurse he met while convalescing. Some of the theatrical techniques used by Les Smith have a distancing effect generating less impact than the more naturalistic storytelling. Colin Connor acts as a narrator giving background information on the number of soldiers lost in the conflict yet the play works best when the audience is given the chance to reach conclusions without guidance.
Connor’s Sergeant Fielding serves as a moral centre trying to ensure that the execution is conducted without provoking rebellion in the ranks and that Smith is allowed as much dignity as possible. Fielding is a decent man in an obscene situation. The impact of the execution upon the soldiers forced to carry it out is starkly portrayed with them being rewarded for their actions with ten days’ leave.
Director David Thacker sets an evocative atmosphere with a strong sense of futility. The emotional isolation of Private Smith is captured superbly; Michael Shelford is onstage constantly even during the intermission but is ignored by the judges who surround him and debate his fate and the soldiers who push past him. It is a raw demonstration that the individual and his accomplishments are of no consequence in war.
The squalor of the sentence is reflected in James Cotterill’s set design that turns the entire stage into a filthy quagmire. The execution is reduced to a series of mundane tasks with the officers erecting the post and a digging a grave for Smith.
The human cost of the process reaches emotional boiling point during Smith’s final hours with Michael Shelford’s entirely credible and very human reaction. After an hysterical burst there is a horrible sequence in which Shelford haltingly attempts casual conversation with the soldiers forced to guard him. It is so intimate, and the desperate responses of the soldiers (perfectly performed by James Dutton and Ciaran Kellgren) so inadequate, that you start to feel embarrassed and want to look away.
Journey’s Endset a high benchmark for the new season at the Octagon butit is surpassed byEarly One Morning.
Runs Until 1 November| PhotoIan Tilton