Sunday, 6 March 2016

Sound Company - Friendly Fire

Richard Wilcocks writes:

Sound Company      Photo by Richard Wilcocks
It was not only a most appropriate and timely reminder of the catastrophe of the First World War and a few of the individual soldiers caught up in it, but also a kind of tribute to the early days of the Theatre in Education movement: Friendly Fire is a pruned-down and tweaked version of a play for secondary school students created by the Coventry TIE Company in 1970 which had the slightly cumbersome title of Killed July 17th 1916. The story of this was fictitious, but based on real researched events. Some members of the Lawnswood School Community Choir decided to tell a cut-down version of this story, making it locally specific, with references to the Leeds Pals, which formed one of the more ill-fated sections of Kitchener's Army fighting on the Somme in 1916. On the first day of the battle - 1 July - when the Pals and their comrades were advancing towards the village of Serre, hundreds getting machine-gunned or blasted to death in the process, it was inevitable that some of them would get confused or lost.

 One of these was Billy Dean, a character who represents a real-life victim of the brutal army disciplinary process of the time: he was condemned to death for desertion, one of three hundred and fifty others similarly condemned before 1918. He was executed by a firing squad of soldiers who knew him well. It was thought to be good for military morale, somehow. As Voltaire wrote, it was "pour encourager les autres".

Sound Company gave the story some of the feel of a requiem, singing a cappella Spring 1919, with its well-known first line 'In Flanders Field the poppies grow' as they entered St Michael's Church Hall. This short piece with its simple counterpoint was placed at the end of the show as well. Unlike all the other short pieces throughout, some of them from Joan Littlewood's Oh What A Lovely War, this one was specially composed after the hostilities. Some had unfamiliar tunes - We are Fred Karno's Army was, for a change, not sung to the hymn tune The Church's One Foundation. All of them became chorale-like in between the dramatic scenes, which had cinematographic brevity.

The company had its audience completely engaged within about five minutes. "You could tell from the faces," a cast member told me afterwards. "At first they were sizing us up. Then they were definitely with us." We were shocked when the platoon sergeant (a frightening Dick Downing) gave the order to "scare the shit out of Fritzi" during bayonet training, adding that "the only good Boche is a dead Boche", and when the hesitating Billy Dean (a truly professional performance from Derek Holt) did not stab the sandbag representing a human body with sufficient viciousness. We were appalled at the way the court martial was rigged against the defendant. We were also impressed by the sheer quality of the singing: none of these choir members had been unwillingly conscripted (of course) into an unusual situation: they were as deeply involved with the issues and the pity of war as the audience, and well-rehearsed.

Some of the issues came out in the discussion which followed, TIE - style. Dick Downing fielded the questions and the statements, and it soon became obvious that we already knew a fair amount about the Great War which changed the world a hundred years ago, which is a good reason for Sound Company to take this play into schools for the benefit of those who know less.

We owe our thanks to St Michael's/Headingley Hall for allowing us to use their venue at short notice and opening up especially for us.

Audience Comments
Very well performed – words and unaccompanied singing, a good mix of each. The end discussion was so good. Some, with grandfathers who had even been soldiers in WW1 had not heard of some of the harrowing detail of what had happened.

A very complete piece that built to a climax with the Dean/Sergeant Major dialogue. The end discussion was valuable too.

Very affecting! Combination of songs and story was very moving, and an important story to be told. Thank you!

This was a very moving and thought-provoking event, with information I didn't know before and it made me THINK. Very good discussion.

Excellent. Beautiful singing.

Fab! Thoroughly enjoyed it. Have seen it before and loved it!

Excellent, the subject matter goes without saying, and the educational importance came up during the discussion. It's a great medium to describe it in. The framing device was also new to me; at first I was sceptical but it was extremely effective.

This was wonderful – introduced me to several aspects of the war that I'd never though about before, and will certainly think about further! The 'script-in-hand' approach worked surprisingly well, and the songs make such a powerful atmosphere.

Very vivid and thought-provoking. I'm so pleased to hear you are taking the performance to Lawnswood School as it is essential that young people hear the raw story.

Really excellent, moving experience. Should be taken into secondary schools.

Very moving and thoughtful i.e thought-provoking. Read the line from Henri Barbuse: “Not two armies fighting each other. It's one huge army committing suicide.” Keep passing on the message!

Thank you - very moving event. Particularly enjoyed the singing – brilliant!

Very moving, especially the songs. Couldn't hear some of the spoken stuff: some performers need to speak more slowly and project. These things need to be done, lest we forget

Very moving and intimate performance. Thank you for putting this on.

Very poignant story of ordinary men in an extraordinary situation. The singing captured the spirit of the time brilliantly.

Very powerful and very moving. Loved the singing. Relevant to events in the world today, sadly.

Good performance, on time, good organisation. Venue just about adequate but not a problem

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