The Fighting Bradfords: a belated homage

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The Gala’s first theatre commission in years, The Fighting Bradfords, might not be the most memorable World War One play, but it portrays a faithful story of four forgotten brothers.

What a year it’s been for the Gala Theatre. Ever since the acrimonious departure of artistic director Simon Stallworthy, the Gala Theatre’s status has been relegated to a second division receiving venue, with very little actual theatre being programmed. I got wind of things changing around 12 months ago with the appointment of a new programming director and a renewed interest from the County Council. Things started bearing fruit earlier this year with a lot of high-profile companies coming to the theatre – there had been the odd high-profile company before, but three companies in one season (Northern Stage, Original Theatre Company and John Godber company) was new. Then came Next Up …, the inaugural scratch night, which was successful enough to become a regular thrice-yearly fixture.

Now comes The Fighting Bradfords, the Gala’s first commission. Well, sort of. Officially, this is a Durham County Council commission for a play to be performed at the Gala. The Gala is owned by the council, and theatre management is so tightly integrated into the council structures, there’s no clear line for what cultural activities in Durham County do and don’t count as the Gala’s own. In this case, the commission (along with No Turning Back over the summer) was part of a wider series of events over the county called Durham Remembers, marking the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, and the commission requested by the council was the story of four sons of the respected Bradford family. All enthusiastically signed up to fight, all were decorated for bravery – and all but one gave their lives.

Make no mistake, this was a tough brief to work to. The four Bradford boys all have fascinating stories – even the summary of their lives in the original call for commission is an interesting read (and if that’s not enough, there’s a more comprehensive history on this website). But in spite of them all sharing the same family, their individual stories are so detailed and disparate that putting them all into one play was going to be no easy task, whoever got the commission.

The successful applicant, Carina Rodney, went about this by taking the play in a series of flashbacks. It’s the 1960s and an idealistic young man speaks to an elderly Thomas Bradford, the only surviving brother from the war, seeking help with his university dissertation. What then follows is a series of moments from the lives of the Bradford boys, from playing together as children to the dreaded telegrams that came through for three of them. There’s a lot to cram into the two hours, but in it goes. Highlights of the four biopics include Thomas’s pep talk to a terrified soldier in Ypres to same himself; Roland, the officer who earned the respect of his men and staged a musical to keep up morale; James’s sense of duty to return to the front so soon after getting married; and the cruellest death of all, George, meant to be the safest of all in the Navy, killed so close to the armistice. As well as this, the play does a lot of portray the camaraderie of the men on the front, from the fun they find together to the gallows humour that gets them through the darkest moments.

Psyche Scott directed the play. I last saw saw her direct Blue Remembered Hills at Northern Stage back in 2013, where I felt the set verged on an overly minimalist style. Here, however, she used a nice multi-purpose set that can represent everything from hills to the trenches to the top of a ship. If there’s one achievement I’d pick out, however, it’s the performance of Jessica Johnson, playing wife Annie and especially mother Nancy. It must have been an agonising situation for Nancy and so many parents like her at the start of the war, on the one hand being proud of what you sons are doing, but on the other hand being terrified of what will happen to them out there. The scene between Nancy and James is touching, which Nancy make last-ditch attempts to suggest maybe enough people had signed up already.

And yet, for all the achievements of this play, The Fighting Bradfords struggles to stand out from all the other World War One plays doing the rounds. With the play continually dotting from one biopic to another, it never really gets the chance to get any focus. I suppose it was a bit much to expect this to be in the same league as giants such as Journey’s End and Birdsong, because the brief made it difficult for the play to develop any focus, with it dotting from one biopic to another. Even so, I did feel a opportunity was missed in the 1960s scenes. This student’s main function in these scenes seemed to be to ask Thomas about the war, but in his back-story we hear this student is an anti-war idealist more interested in making it big with his band in London. The idea that people would willingly sign up for the Great War must have been incomprehensible to him, but I just felt the play passed up an opportunity to explain how different the mentality was in 1914 and why.

Still, the play easily sets out what it meant to do, which is bring to the live four forgotten stories from the first world war. Yes, there may be a lot of tough competition out there, but there so many different stories of the war out there, all which deserve to be told. So a good start for the Gala’s first commission (I’m going to treat it as a Gala commission for argument’s sake) for a conventional play. Speaking of which …

Also at Durham: No Turning Back

The Fighting Bradfords was the second of two productions shown at the Gala as part of the county’s Somme centenary celebrations. Before then, there was No Turning Back. I had time to squeeze in a mention during my Edinburgh Fringe coverage – now I can take a proper look.

This grabbed attention because it turned over the entire auditorium to a promenade production. This might seem like a reckless gamble, but it’s a safer move than one might think. With exception of the odd seaside town (e.g. Scarborough), August is generally a lousy month for business if you’re a theatre. Punters are busy going on holiday or lounging around in the sun, and most of the actors and arts journalists decamp to Edinburgh. So if you’re going to put your main auditorium out of action for over a month, you may as well do it in the month when you otherwise wouldn’t sell many tickets anyway. But making the most of the month, what do you have in late July and all of August? School holidays. So with the performances times over mornings and afternoons instead of the usual evenings, this was a nifty opportunity to use the theatre as an educational experience for children. Worth watching for adults too, but clearly families were the target audience here.

As an educational experience, it does the job well. In a way, No Turning Back does the job that The Fighting Bradfords didn’t quite pull off: it explained what turned ordinary folk into men who killed without remorse. A big recruitment strategy was batallions from the same town, where everyone who knew each other from home fought side-by-side on the Western Front. And when inevitably a soldier beside you was killed, it wasn’t just a brother in arms, it was someone you’d known your whole life. Little wonder they wanted revenge badly enough to take part in suicidal runs over the top. And this is handled with a sensitive balance, never whitewashing the horrors of the war, but staying away from graphic material that you shouldn’t really expose primary school children to.

Less strong was the plot. There was nothing wrong with the storyline as such, but more could have been made of it. It is billed as an immersive experience of the new recruits, and from recruitment to battle it does this job. The second half, however, is more disparate, with the stories of the field hospital and life on the home front having little connection with the earlier scenes. Perhaps the solider guiding us through the trenches needed to be wounded and sent home to have some continuity. And I wasn’t convinced of the need to switch to third-person narration for the last scene listing the numbers of the dead – maybe this could have been done by the training sergeant we saw earlier, disillusioned by all the men he sent to their deaths?

Again, however, this is best judged on what it was meant to do, and as an educational play it does a good job, with a clever use of the theatre in a way they haven’t done it before. All in all, 2016 is proving and exciting year for the Gala. All eyes now on what they do next.

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