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BWW Reviews: HOLDING HANDS AT PASCHENDALE, The White Bear Theatre, March 4 2011


At an Irish wedding, when the Guinness was flowing and tongues were loosened, Belfast playwright Martin Lynch heard an uncle recount four days in the life of his grandfather on the Front at Paschendale. Lynch says, 

"One young lad, just minutes before he was due to go over the top, cracked up and threw his rifle away. My grandfather and another couple of men near to him were ordered to subdue him and, along the way, my grandfather found himself handcuffed to the lad. De facto, he ended up the arresting soldier and spent four days and nights handcuffed to this guy as they were moved from billet to billet before the boy's court-martial took place."

From that extraordinary incident, Lynch constructs a play as claustrophobic as the small space shared by the actors and audience in a theatre ideally suited to bringing out the raw emotions of the drama. Mo (Christopher Birks) is a mere lad, whose music hall upbringing allows him to spin a few yarns and sing a few songs to his world-weary captor. Wracked by survivor guilt after the death of his brother, to whom he was close, but to whom his feelings were not straightforward, Mo's journey goes from defiance to acceptance of the consequences of his decision to refuse to go over the top. Willie (Nick Danan), cuffed to his prisoner, also goes on a journey, during which he confronts his issues with his parents and tries to be a better surrogate father to Mo than his own father was to him.

The phrase "Based on a True Story" has given Hollywood licence to ladle on the sentiment, simplifying complex situations to soap opera plotting (compare Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan with Ernst Junger's Storm of Steel for example) and Lynch doesn't shy away from playing up the bromance between Mo and Willie. Danan and Birks are equally happy to give highly emotional performances, enhanced by their proximity to the audience - we see the tears standing in their eyes. But this is the war of Sassoon and Owen, of pals regiments marching off to hang out their washing on the Siegfried Line, of teenagers shot for "cowardice" in the face of the enemy, so the licence is earned. Lynch the dramatist may not shy away from ratcheting up the pathos, but Lynch the polemicist never loses sight of the play's overarching message - that ordinary young men were placed in extraordinary circumstances, then held to account by cynical, older men unwilling to show mercy. We understand post-traumatic stress better these days, but older men are still sending young men into extraordinary circumstances to fight for Queen and Country and the consequences are just as tragic.


Holding Hands at Paschendale continues at The White Bear until 27 March 2011.   



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