Writer: Mark Hayhurst
Reviewer: David Jobson
Playwright Mark Mayhurst is no stranger to writing about the devastating impact of warfare to different people. His exploration about Nazi brutality in Taken at Midnight received critical acclaim in Chichester and the West End.
Now he is back with his latest work, First Light, a WW1 play that addresses one of the conflict’s most enduring subjects killing of soldiers for desertion.
The play opens with the ‘Manchester Pals’ battalion at the Somme, going over the top into a blaze of machine gunfire. The few who survive include Bert Ingham and Alfie Longshaw, who can’t bear to face another battle alongside men they don’t recognise.
The play jumps between the trenches and Manchester, where Bert Ingham’s family learn about their son’s death from gunshot wounds. It is only after the war though that they find out that he and Alfie were shot at dawn for desertion.
The play addresses what it took for the men of No Man’s Land to desert their fellow comrades, as well as the morality of sending them to the firing squad. Issues that reach far beyond 1916 and the horror of No Man’s Land
Back home, Phil Davis gives a stalwart performance as Bert’s father, George Ingham, who cannot rest until his son’s war grave is etched with the words “Shot at Dawn”. Will the truth be finally revealed to the world, or will it mark Bert forever for his one deed of supposed cowardice.
It is a distressing time shared with Amelda Brown and Kelly Price as his wife and daughter, who only want to move on without the possibility of the family’s disgrace being revealed within their community. It’s quite fascinating to see how our views on WW1 have changed so dramatically since then.
The best moments of the play are the trenches scenes, created for full impact by director Jonathan Munby. Over the mountain of mud that dominates the back of the stage soldiers appear, stumbling and falling with pieces of furniture they bring on and off between scenes. The sounds of deafening gunfire and explosions ring through the theatre.
Woven throughout the images of destruction the comradery between the men is poignantly portrayed. David Moorst as Alfie Longshaw is the jokester of the battalion. Cheeky to the officer and always ready to show off his erudition and knowledge of works such as Shakespeare, he is the life and soul of many a scene.
He also represents what remaining strands of humanity the soldiers of No Man’s Land cling on to. In contrast, Tom Gill as Bert Ingham is increasingly distant and empty, always following Alfie’s lead, finally deserting with him. He is far from the boy his family describes with sorrow, and during the play, you wonder whether he is suffering from shell-shock
This is a fascinating play. Just watching the pair react so differently, especially during their final hours is agonizing. They are at the heart of the debates provided from different points of view. A scene between Sam Phillips and Andrew Woodall as the pragmatic Lieutenant Jennings and the brandy-swigging Major General presiding over the two lads’ open and shut case powerfully illustrates this.
Inevitably, the Ingham family scenes slow down the play amid the emotionally charged No Man’s Land scenes. Also, more attention could have been given to the psychological impact the Somme and trench warfare on Bert. Even though his character and family are given the most attention, Tom Gill’s remote performance is practically overshadowed by David Moorst in the first half
Overall the No Man’s Land and Manchester scenes go hand in hand to create an interesting and emotional discussion about the morality of desertion and the firing squads. During this year’s centenary of WW1 and the Somme, this is an absorbing play worth seeing.
Running until: 2July 2016| Image: Manuel Harlan