Director Roger Redfarn has been saying for months he’s got something rather special on his hands with No 60 to the Somme.
The good news is: he is absolutely right.
Not only is it a deeply-impressive new play from Chichester’s very own Greg Mosse and Carol Godsmark, the production offers a remarkably-assured debut for the city’s wonderful new asset, the Chichester Community Theatre.
Their first outing suggests Chichester’s cultural landscape has gained a terrific new player. With No 60 to the Somme, the company has set the bar very high indeed, and it will be fascinating to see what happens next.
But for the moment, let’s enjoy a debut which, in almost every respect, is beautifully judged and beautifully delivered.
It was always an enticing prospect. How on earth, in a small studio theatre, was the company ever going to convey the story of the London buses which went to the front during World War One?
The answer, it seems, is that you hand it over to Roger Redfarn and perform it with skill and delicacy and not a little courage. The production isn’t afraid to make plenty of demands on the audience’s imagination. Music and projections do the rest.
Mosse and Godsmark choose to focus on one Jim Swift, a decent, honest chap with a sweetheart in tow. He’s doing alright. He’s got a good job. But when the Great War breaks out, he can’t resist the challenge, thanks partly to some press-ganging by music hall stars Marie Lloyd (Caroline Bennett) and Vesta Tilley (Susie Wilde).
Ben Cassan is perfect as Jim, wrestling with the disapproval of his father (Andy Horner) and torn by his love for the fiancée he’ll leave behind (Susie Coutts). Cassan makes Jim’s sheer ordinariness both moving and compelling as tragedy closes in.
But maybe the night’s finest performance comes from Coutts as his beloved, a young woman in love, but a young woman with a clear sense of duty. Chichester Community Theatre is clearly going to discover some impressive new talents: Coutts is the first, a performer with a beautiful understated stage presence and evident sincerity.
Steve Wallace is also impressive as The Historian who steps out of the audience to narrate the tale, offer asides and fill in the full historical context. However, it’s a role which needs to be greatly reduced when the piece is rewritten for the future productions it most definitely deserves.
There are too many times – absolutely no fault of Wallace’s – where the schoolmasterly Historian is simply too intrusive, spelling out for us what the actors have just made us feel. There are times when the role, again absolutely no fault of Wallace’s, breaks the spell which has been so cleverly, subtly cast.
Another jarring note is the misjudged pop-up pop at Tony Blair.
Whether or not we consider him a war-mongering liar is too complex a debate for a sudden on-screen image which consequently feels like a cheap shot. Damagingly for the play, it’s a cheap shot which once again breaks the spell. The production’s success is that it so brilliantly creates the feel of those World War One years; a sudden image of a 21st-century politician seems invasive.
But none of that detracts from a truly-excellent night, a production which comes close to perfection of a play which is rich and absorbing delivered by a terrific cast with the promise of plenty more to come.
This is going to prove an important week for Chichester. We have indeed gained something rather special.
Reverend Thwaites – Chris Nairne
Jim Swift – Ben Cassan
Billy Swift – Luc Garner-Gibbons
Alf Swift – Andy Horner
Vera Thwaites – Susie Coutts
The Historian –Steve Wallace
Bus Inspector – Tony Morgan
Marie Lloyd – Caroline Bennett
Vesta Tilley – Susie Wilde
First Vagrant – Judy Fowler
Second Vagrant – Fiona Miller
Third Vagrant – Tommy Gamester
Captain Jackson – Stephen Burt
Chalkie Laughton – Ashley Blake
Victoire Renauld – Daisy Imbert
The Production Team
Director – Roger Redfarn
Musical Director – Muriel Carnegie
Lighting Director – Nigel Hollowell Howard
Costume Designer – Pat Moss
Projection Designer – Abigail Rowe
Sound Designer – Richard Wilde
Production Stage Manager – David Bennett
Deputy Stage Manager – Victoria Gill
Artistic Co-ordinator – Roberta Hughes
Wardrobe Mistress – Sally Hastings-Thomas
Assistant Stage Managers – Coral Botteley; Trishia Watson
Production Photographer – Rosey Purchase
Lighting Operator – Thomas Coughtrey
Projection Operator – Melody Lo
Sound Operator – Melody Lo
Front of House Manager – Liz Turner
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