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Review: An August Bank Holiday Lark @ The Oxford Playhouse

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

This year marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First Word War; fittingly, 2014 is also the 50th anniversary of the publication of Philip Larkin’s famously stirring poem MCMXIV, in which lines of volunteers queuing up to enlist are said to be “Grinning as if it were all / An August Bank Holiday Lark”. It is this contemplative poignancy that Deborah McAndrew’s new play, presented by theatre company Northern Broadsides, attempts to embrace. Her story of a peaceful Yorkshire community being rent asunder by war is indelicately contrived in places, yet eternally heartfelt and compellingly emotional nonetheless.

Set in the fictional village of Greenmill, An August Bank Holiday Lark focuses on the idyllic country life of the early 20th Century and its slow demise as a result of World War One. Actor-Director Barrie Rutter stars as John Farrar, the Squire of Greenmill Spinners, a group of Morris dancers who enthusiastically come together to celebrate the village’s annual Rushcart festival. The relationship between Farrar’s daughter Mary (Emily Butterfield) and Frank Armitage (Darren Kuppan) takes centre stage, developing from shy secrecy to openly-expressed love. War intervenes, however, and the young men of the village, including Frank, enlist with inevitably tragic consequences.

The central love story between Frank and Mary is disappointingly wanting in plausible sentiment. Their initial shyness translates to the audience as a lack of feeling and their relationship seems slightly forced, slightly artificial as a result. Paradoxically, one can believe in their relationship more readily in the second half, when Frank is absent fighting and Mary is plagued with anxiety over his well-being.

The play’s most memorable performance comes from Rutter, who is thoroughly convincing as the gruff John Farrar, whose fierce temper hides a reluctance to let go of tradition. Mark Thomas is entertaining as Herbert Tweddle, the self-berating, endearingly earnest village idiot, and Lauryn Redding is enjoyable as Susie, a strident mill-girl whose unrequited love burns slowly throughout. All capture that quintessential Yorkshire pragmatism perfectly.

Despite these laudable individual performances, it is the ensemble Morris dance scenes that are at the play’s heart, and that provide its richest seam of entertainment. Their catchy music, hearty singing, colourful costumes and rhythmic movement impart an excited, almost teenage sense of enjoyment, perfectly reflecting the shy passion of Frank and Mary’s reeling love. One cannot help but smile at their innocence.

The dances are an expression of all that stands to be lost, not just as a result of war, but also because a booming tourism industry is driving villagers off to the coast on their bank holidays (“Why on earth would you want to go to Blackpool?” remarks Farrar). They embody a traditional lifestyle that became all but extinct as the century progressed, and are thus tinged with melancholia for all their congenial jollity.

An effective dramatic irony subtly underlies the play throughout. The audience experiences a growing trepidation as the young men of the village eagerly discuss signing up and a gut-wrenching pity for those back home in their hopeful anticipation that ‘it will all be over by Christmas’. Their gradual realisation that the war will not be over soon and their various reactions in the face of tragedy are arrestingly emotional.

‘Never such innocence again’, Larkin’s MCMXIV concludes and this is the heartrendingly poignant message of An August Bank Holiday Lark. The audience experiences Greenmill’s transition from thriving traditional village complete with Morris dancing and forbidden love-affairs, to shattered post-war community, irredeemably affected by its losses. It is a captivatingly moving transformation.

4/5

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