REVIEW: First Light a new play by Mark Hayhurst at Chichester Festival Minerva Theatre

Mark Hayhurst in rehearsals for Chichester Festival Theatre's production of First Light. Photo Manuel Harlan
Mark Hayhurst in rehearsals for Chichester Festival Theatre's production of First Light. Photo Manuel Harlan

A simple gravestone. One of countless thousands on the battlefields of the Somme and Flanders.

All virtually identical except for the name, regiment and the date.

‘10495 Private A Ingham, Manchester Regiment, 1st December 1916.’

But this one is distinguished by the addition of a statement below the engraved cross.

‘Shot at Dawn. One of the first to enlist. A worthy son of his father’.

Alongside is the gravestone of Private Alfred Longshaw. His friend. The date is the same. But there is no additional inscription at the base.

‘Shot at dawn’ was a euphemism for facing the firing squad of their own side - for desertion.

This new play, inspired by these headstones, follows their journey to the fateful execution while blending the domesticated scenes of worry and anger back at Private Ingham’s home.

It seeks to answer why those final lines should have been added for all eternity to read.

Written by Hayhurst who gave us the astonishing pre Second World War play Taken At Midnight, this new doom-laden drama spares us nothing of the torment of these two young volunteers.

But if it is bleak, it is rich in humour too. Full of wit and pathos - with a hint of the final Blackadder when all hope is finally extinguished.

This lightness of touch amplifies the darkness.

Phil Davis, a giant of an actor, brings a heart-felt sensitivity to the gruffness of his role as Bert’s father.

Tom Gill and David Moorst could not be better cast in the lead roles - sharing their humour, their pain, and their humanity in equal measure.

This gem of a play will travel to London like Taken at Midnight. Catch it here, while you can.