North South Theatre presents – Pals
by Joe Morel
Photo Credit Joe Morel
Britain had an ingenious solution to recruiting in the First World War – organise and train friends and workmates alongside each other, fighting in close-knit “Pals Battalions” on the Western Front. North South Theatre’s production of “Pals” lets us into the world of these men as they chase adventure, women and glory together – performed in the pop-up Waterfront Theatre at the Lion’s Den with Plymouth Sound at sunset as a spectacular backdrop.
Plymouth’s military record of service made this display of friendship, camaraderie and dedication all the more poignant. ‘Pals’ shows the audience the competitive relationship between affable Stan and his brother-in-law George, expecting a child with Stan’s sister Maisie. The story of their recruitment into the army along with the hapless Joe is told in vignettes, jumping back and forth between the terror of frontline trenches and the pleasant cosiness of England, clearly still resonant in these men as they serve king and country abroad.
With the Lion’s Den as impressive and appropriate a setting for military drama as they come, North South kept the staging simple. The very few set changes were written into the script – one as a particularly interesting medical examination where Joe is told to “see Phyllis” – and fluidly dealt with by the actors.
The lack of power for sound and lighting was no obstacle either. The changing evening light gave the whole performance an ethereal, haunting beauty that no other theatre could replicate. I confess I was so fixated by the onstage action that I didn’t see the full sounds in production – but every sound from gunshot to urine sample was performed live using both drums and all manner of bits stuck together in curious contraptions. It’s a measure of how well this was done that I didn’t once look to stage left to see how the effect was created, despite the booth being in full view of the audience.
Photo Credit Joe Morel
Daubed London landmarks and mimed rat-baiting drew the audience into the trenches with Stan and George, turning the intimate moments where the two share a cigarette or bicker between themselves a familial, brotherly quality that heightened the paralysing fear of ‘going over the top’ and being stuck in No Man’s Land. Illicit nips from hip flasks on night watch; a letter from home announcing the birth of George and Maisie’s child; conversations on a street corner back home; recuperating in a medical tent we know not where. Jumps in location and time break up the story into episodes rather than dealing with one straightforward narrative.
This makes perfect sense – ‘Pals is not a dramatic history of the First World War. It gives us, in wonderful detail and with honesty and sensitivity, what happened to a few mates who happened to be stood in the street when the army came calling. This pared back production’s simplicity and organic feeling capture the relationship between them perfectly, and deeply involve the audience in what happened to them. With warships in the background and poppies adorning the city’s naval memorial, ‘Pals’ did North South Theatre, and Plymouth, very proud.