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Review: Early One Morning – The Octagon Theatre, Bolton

Luke Sharma attends a heart-rending production of Early One Morning at the Octagon Theatre, Bolton

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‘Early One Morning’ is a play written by Les Smith. It was commissioned by the Octagon Theatre in 1998 to mark the 80th anniversary of the Armistice. It is based on the final hours of Private James Smith, portrayed in the play by Michael Shelford, a soldier once held in high regard by his peers and senior officers, as he is charged with desertion, the punishment for which is death.

The auditorium was breathtaking due to its transformation into a trench in WWI France. Corrugated sheet metal panels on the walls, chicken wire surrounding the stalls and dirt and soil were all over the floor. A smoky haze throughout the auditorium added just further to the implication of trench warfare. With the bonus of it being theatre in the round, the audience sat literally inches away from the action. It created a close and intimate atmosphere, which invited all the spectators to feel as if they were in the trenches with the soldiers.

We were introduced to the story by a narrator in the form of Sergeant Fielding (Colin Connor) who took on the role of the orator and performed it with great aplomb. Mr. Connor set the scene for the whole play in an exceptional manner, and then showed no problems in phasing between the role of narrator and his performance role as Sergeant Fielding.

Michael Shelford was terrific in acting as a soldier with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Everything about his performance, down to his facial expressions was absolutely perfect. His body language took precedence over his speech. Though Private Smith’s face was not always visible to all of the spectators, throughout the intense scene during his Court Martial, his body language told the audience all they needed to know. He quivered, his hands shook and his fear was definitely amplified throughout the crowd. Accompanied by the sound of artillery fire and gunshots, it was a really effective way of emphasising the terrible effects of post-traumatic stress.

Scenes of Smith’s hallucinations and flashbacks were effectively highlighted by the change in lighting towards a more sepia toned light. This effect was used throughout the play whenever Smith’s love interest Lizzie Cartwright (Jessica Baglow) appeared. The chemistry between the pair was strong and their portrayal of a young couple separated by the war was incredible. Jessica Baglow was the embodiment of a stereotypical wartime girl at home, and managed to become a microcosm of the whole of the UK during the war. She managed to portray the heartache that was felt by those at home just waiting and not knowing whether their brother, son, husband or father was going to come home. This is as much a credit to the actress as it is to the scriptwriting.

(L-R) Tristan Brooke as Lance Corporal Bradley, James Dutton as Private McKinnel, Michael Shelford as Private James Smith, and Ciaran Kellgren as Private Webster. Photo: Ian Tilton

(L-R) Tristan Brooke as Lance Corporal Bradley, James Dutton as Private McKinnel, Michael Shelford as Private James Smith, and Ciaran Kellgren as Private Webster. Photo: Ian Tilton

There must be a special mention of Tristan Brooke, James Dutton and Ciaran Kellgren who each played two characters, but particularly for their performances as Lance Corporal Bradley, Private McKinnel and Private Webster respectively. They represented the typical soldier, none thought they deserved being there but did everything they could to deal with it. When presented with the task of digging the execution post into the ground, all three actors represented the camaraderie that was necessary between the soldiers. The particular talent in this crop of actors is emphasised by the fact that the repertoire which hit me hardest in the whole play concluded with; “I’m just a bus conductor,” uttered by Ciaran Kellgren as Private Webster. In any other context this line may be trivial but the emotion and heightened tensions between these three men made it a harsh reality check for all in the room.

The horrors of the war were graphically described throughout the play by both dialogue and actions. The battalion of soldiers started out as an excited bunch of men, but throughout the play, we slowly see their spirits begining to deflate. This just showed the extremely precise directing of David Thacker, who managed to capture the overall effect the war was playing on the soldiers so intricately.

At the end of the play, the Chaplain (John Branwell) provided comfort to Pvt. Smith. Branwell made the character appear lost, confused and upset with God as he realised that Pvt. Smith was a representation of the inhumane nature of the war as a whole. A fantastic job considering he was playing the man who condemned Smith at the start of the play.

The conclusion was resounding. Fear, guilt and helplessness being portrayed by all actors and without a doubt, the whole play was tied up perfectly. The audience was in deep thought after the play and many did not leave with a dry eye. It is a terribly sad but poetically beautiful play. Amazing job from the Octagon Theatre, they have produced something that everyone involved, from front of house staff to the back stage team to actors on stage, should be proud of and deserve plaudits in equal measure.

  • Norry Niven

    I would very much like to reach out to the playwright regarding turning this story into a film.