An untold First World War story

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Actor-turned-playwright Deborah McAndrew’s latest work is another collaboration with Northern Broadsides. Nick Ahad spoke to her.

Where did the play come from?

It was a very loose brief. Barrie Rutter, Northern Broadsides’ artistic director wanted a play called An August Bank Holiday Lark. It was a title that had been with him for a long time and he simply gave me the title, taken from the Larkin poem, and he wanted a play set around the First World War, in 1914, and he wanted folk dancing.

How do you even start?

I went away did my research and it came together really well. When I started looking at it I found out about Wakes Week, which happened around the August Bank Holiday. Around the turn of the century it was the start of working class leisure time and people started going off for the week to places like Blackpool, but before that people would stay in their villages and fairs and markets would come to town for the week. It was also the start of harvest time and the tradition of bringing in rushes to lay on the floors of the churches over the winter to keep them warm and dry. It was a job that used to be done by the women, but in some parts of Yorkshire the men started doing it and using carts and, well, once you get men and machinery involved it became like Top Gear. ‘Right, we’ll have a cart and we’ll stick a thatch on it and put a jockey on it and have a banner’. It was such a peacocking.

So having found this tradition, you had something that would work set around a Bank Holiday?

It was perfect. They also danced behind the carts, real morris dancing with sticks and clogs – which is surprisingly masculine.

Given that the play is set in 1914 and we’re doing it in the centenary of the war, obviously it has to recognise that. The Accrington Pals is the go-to play for the First World War and how it affected communities up here, so I wanted to stay clear of that, but while I was doing my research I found there was an untold story about The Lancashire regiments that were on the Eastern Front.

There were quite a lot of them at Gallipoli and this fitted perfectly – I didn’t want to write a play that went right the way through the war. For a start I wanted to say that for lots of people the war was over very quickly because they were dead or they had lost all their family – and if that was the case, then the war’s over for you. I wanted to keep it tight within a year and the Gallipoli campaign fit in very well. Everyone associates that with the Anzacs who were massacred on the landing, but there were also Lancashire Fusiliers there and there were heavily losses on that day. So there was this untold story about these Lancashire men and the August offensive in 1915 was just a year after the war started and there was this one last push, it failed and they pulled out. So the Gallipoli campaign covered not even that first year of the war, so I looked at that more carefully. I had a fictional narrative that I wanted to use. I start with the first August, 1914 and the rush cart being built, family feuds, love affairs, all that sort of thing, then moving forward to Christmas, when everyone assumed the war would be over. We then move to the following August in 1915 and the village is dealing with having suffered those losses.

You discovered a specific regiment that fit in with the story?

I discovered the fusiliers who landed in April, I couldn’t use them because they were shipped out to Egypt in September, but what I discovered that was even better was the Lancashire Loyals, the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment who went out in training for September, could have had leave at Christmas because they weren’t deployed until June the following year, so they travelled out then and were engaged in what was called the August offensive, when many men died.

There’s nothing new to say about the war – it was futile and terrible, but the political plays and writings have all been done and said so I thought I will tell a story that might not have been told before with characters who people want to spend the evening with.

And you have an impressively large cast for this.

What a massive privilege. Not many writers these days get to write a brand new play for 12 actors, I feel very privileged. Unless you’re writing for the National or the RSC you don’t get to do that.

• Viaduct Theatre, Dean Clough, Halifax, March 11-15; Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, March 18-22; York Theatre Royal, April 1-5; West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, April 8-19; Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, April 22-26.