Preview: An August Bank Holiday Lark

Richard Smirke talks to Deborah McAndrew about Northern Broadsides latest war drama

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First published in 1964, but set in Britain during the opening months of the First World War, at a time when thousands of ordinary men were preparing to leave their jobs, homes and families behind to go off and fight, Philip Larkin’s poem MCMXIV evokes a country and population blissfully unaware of the tragic events that were to follow.

The final line of the poem famously states “Never such innocence again” and it is this sense of wistful nostalgia combined with foreboding for the future that informs An August Bank Holiday Lark, a new production from Northern Broadsides theatre company in partnership with New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-Under-Lyme.

The inspiration for An August Bank Holiday Lark came from Northern Broadsides artistic director Barrie Rutter, who commissioned Deborah McAndrew to write an original drama to mark this year’s centenary of the First World War. The brief that he gave her contained just three instructions: the play was to be set around the time of the Great War; it would be called An August Bank Holiday Lark, after a line in Larkin’s MCMXIV; and it must include folk dancing.

“The brief was as general as that. I could have literally gone anywhere with it,” says McAndrew, who Coronation Street fans may fondly recall for playing fashion student Angie Freeman in the 1990s. The playwright and actor did have some rules of her own, however. “I didn’t want to write a really sad play,” she states. “You can’t write a play about the First World War without suffering ultimately coming to a community because that would be untruthful. But what was great about the title An August Bank Holiday Lark and the idea of including folk dancing was that it immediately puts you in a fun place. And I think the further away that you begin from tragedy the more tragic it becomes.”

Dancing plays a key role in McAndrew’s three-act play, which is set in the fictional East Lancashire village of Greenmill and revolves around the annual Rushcart festival – an ancient rural custom whereby harvested rushes are placed on to elaborately thatched carts and pulled through towns and villages by Morris dancers.

“The play was grounded in August so I needed a festival around that time and the Rushcart was the obvious place to start,” explains the writer. “Here was a great thriving tradition of folk dancing, which was rooted in the rural past, and then everything changed with the onset of war.”

Despite never leaving its village setting, the play explores the impact of the First World War on rural communities by focusing on the ordinary clerks, cotton spinners and cobblers who enlisted as soldiers, as well as the families that they left behind. The characters in McAndrew’s play are all fictional, but the lives they represent are based on historical fact, as is the regiment that they sign up to: the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, which took part in the disastrous August 1915 Gallipoli offensive.

“It was really important for me to get my facts straight,” explains McAndrew, who spent many hours at the regimental museum at Fulwood Barracks in Preston researching Britain’s often overlooked involvement on the Eastern Front.

“I felt that the Western Front had already been well covered. So I didn’t want anything reminiscent of Oh, What A Lovely War! or The Accrington Pals. Not because they are not good but because they are brilliant, so why would you want to do them again?

“As a playwright I deal in the currency of people and their lives, loves, conflicts and engagements with events that are beyond them and bigger than them. I hope that people will feel that this is a story that they recognise and can engage in, as well as feel satisfied that the play has honoured the many men who died.”

An August Bank Holiday Lark, 4-8 March, Dukes, Lancaster; 11-15, The Viaduct, Halifax; 18-22 LBT, Huddersfield; 1-5 Apr, Theatre Royal, York; 8-19 April, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds; 22-26 Apr, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough; 29-3 May; Playhouse, Liverpool; 10-14 Junem Coliseum, Oldham

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