What better weekend to perform a play set in the First World War than the weekend of the centenary of the armistice?
‘Voices Over Passchendale’ by Tim Wander and Felicity Fair Thompson follows the journey through war of Peter Pendleton Eckersley, the first civilian aviation air traffic control systems officer and the man who end on to become the first Chief Engineer and founder of the BBC.
Eckersley himself was in the safe hands of Olly Fry, who showed both Eckersley’s passion for technology and his dislike of authority in equal measure. Olly’s performance was the foundation on which this play stood, and his performance was extremely strong: he was convincing, likeable and thoroughly commendable.
He was well-supported by a group of familiar faces on the Island’s theatre scene, and each stood out in their own way. Hannah Brewer’s singing as Gabi was beautiful, and highly emotive, and a twist on the usually jolly, well-known war ditties. Patrick Barry as Tom Eckersley was an excellent foil to his roguish on-stage brother, his warmth making his short time on stage a joy.
Jason Harris was, as he always is, memorable in the best way as Eckersley’s long-suffering Commanding Officer, his wonderfully subtle changes of expression saying twice what his dialogue alone could have said, as he tried to control Eckersley’s flying (and crashing!) habit. The final member of cast on the scene was Simon Lynch as Major Prince, and he was fabulous, his interaction with Olly’s Eckersley bringing some laugh-out-loud moments as his frustration with Eckersley’s disregard for the rules grew.
There were several highly poignant moments within the show, in particular when Eckersley discovered that Gabi, the French girl he had been seeing, was killed by a shell, and when he lost his temper with Major Price, a far cry from his previous interactions with his superiors.
This is the sort of show that felt as though it began life as a monologue or perhaps even a radio piece, so prominent was the character of Eckersley and so distinctive was his dialogue compared to that of the other characters, who were not nearly so fully fleshed out; we didn’t get to spend much time with any of them, which was something of a shame given how strong the actors were that portrayed them!
Northwood House, without doubt, is a beautiful setting for any play, and kudos must go to Maureen Sullivan as Director and also to the little details peppered throughout: knowing that the props were all WW1 originals somehow gave the piece something ‘extra’, and one of the radio systems featured actually flew over Passchendaele.
What was both poignant and chilling – aside from the wild weather outside, somewhat reflective of the battle, I suppose – was the montage of pictures, video and audio clips played just before the onset of Act II. Having spent the interval reading the wonderful souvenir brochure, and knowing how many hundreds of thousands of casualties (275,000, of which 70,000 were killed) there were at Passchendaele, seeing that footage gave rise to one thought: how many of those men being projected on screen made it home?
Eckersley was one of the lucky ones. But then perhaps ‘lucky’ isn’t the right word: after all, it’s safe to say that WW1 never left any who served. He did, however, go on to do great things – and seeing him brought to life at Northwood, with his humour and his revolutionary ideas, makes it very easy to see why.
Plays like this are important. Because they offer a way of learning about history and historical figures that doesn’t require the extensive reading, or classroom teaching, or searching the internet for facts and figures. It brings people – real people – to life, seeing them on stage, particularly when they are so authentically kitted out, and it gives new life to their stories. And that’s important, because the day we – globally, locally or individually – forget our history is the day we repeat it.
Lest We Forget.
Having taken the opportunity of seeing the brilliant production at Northwood House of Voices over Passchendaele this month, I can wholeheartedly applaud the result and the excellent actors particularly ‘ Peter Eckersley’. Looking forward to the Marconi Centenary 2020 in Chelmsford.