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Sleepers in the Field

by on 27 January 2018

A Tide Taken at the Flood

Sleepers in the Field

by Peter Whelan

World Premiere

Questors Theatre, The Judi Dench Playhouse, Ealing, until 3rd February

Review by Mark Aspen

“Do you fight against those you hate, or for those you love?” is one of many questions thrown up by those caught in an all-pervading war, the characters in Peter Whelan’s play, Sleepers in the Field, which is being given a posthumous premiere by the Questors, a company of which the renowned playwright was a member.
Set in the north midlands during the Second World War, the characters are well-drawn recognisable people, who would have been even more recognisable to the grandparents of most of the audience. Each of the characters has a definite and robustly expressed attitude to the war, and their differing opinions form the dramatic tension in the play. This is both the strength and the weakness in the writing. Whelan has clear portraits of his protagonists but their opinions come across as black and white clichés of certain views. Whelan was clearly trying to use them as allegories for the political problems of the present time. Hence Sleepers in the Field doesn’t quite have the coherence of Whelan’s earlier plays on an historic theme, such as The Accrington Pals or The Herbal Bed and the didacticism tends to get in the way of the emotional development of the plot.
Nevertheless, Questors has made this play its own and one senses the dedication of director John Davey and his cast and crew, in a production that engaged the first night audience.
The plot centres around the lives of the Walsh family over eighteen months from the summer of 1940, when we find them building an Anderson shelter in their garden. Left-leaning Ted is a skilled engraver, largely self-educated, especially in philosophy and socialism. He thinks the war is Churchill’s project. His wife Binnie, an anxious worrier, wishes it would end. His daughter, Marion, is a passionate patriot, fervently wishing Hitler’s demise. His son, fifteen-year-old Joe, and his pal Roy Minshall, are vicariously enjoying the adventure of war. Joe and Roy’s maths teacher, Leslie Nicholson, is a would-be pacifist. Next door neighbour, Dinty Moss, is a pragmatist, making what he can of (and from) the war, from “the tide of life”. SIF_006
This is the neighbourhood into which wanders the enigmatic Mr Sand, rendered dumb by the war, lost. Meanwhile, into Marion’s life marches the sceptical Sergeant Jill Williamson, and, with the emotional devastation of an artillery shell, Captain East, ex-public school, doing his duty by the book, dashing.

It is through these ten pairs of eyes that we see the effects of war.
David and Despina Sellar, as Ted and Binnie Walsh, set a solid foundation for the action with good characterisation of their roles. Ted is at heart a family man, a little world weary, still smarting, physically and psychologically from the First World War. David Sellar’s depiction of Ted the man, knowledgeable by his own efforts to the point of erudition is admirable. But Ted may be side-tracked by his political prejudices. When he quotes Socrates “How shall we live?”, Binnie Walsh’s answer would have been more down to earth than Ted’s polemics. Despina Sellar’s portrayal is of a woman living on her nerves, taunted by her very own prejudices, one nurturing her family to the exclusion of others.
Henry Knox and Dylan Lewis played the two boys on the opening night. Their performances are a joy to watch, an uninhibited picture of the rough joys of boyhood at a time when boys could be boys. Their vividly gory imaginations and savage humour brings a light hearted touch to the story.
Mark Redup’s Dinty Moss is a bumptious self-assured character, but likeable in his optimism. It is a full-on part, in contrast to the subtlety mysterious Mr Sand. A mute part is not easy to play, and requires a lot of concentrated acting. Robin Ingram (who had acted with Peter Whelan nearly three decades ago) is well up to the part. Sand is a man damaged by war, but is his shuffling gait and loss of voice due to physical injury, shell-shock or dementia? Whelan does not tell us, but we later learn that Sand is from Slovakia, a country devastated by the War. There is a half-explained symbolism in the roles of both Sand and Moss. (Note the names: desiccation vs verdancy?) Maybe Sand represents the silenced voice of his homeland. Moss boards other people’s dogs, whose barking aggravates Binnie Walsh. As Ted informs us, dogs have only evolved to bark in imitation of their raucous human masters.
Victor Mellors accurately puts over the nature of the schoolmaster Nicholson, whose lack of boldness in being able to state his burgeoning pacifist principles, is reflected in his lack of boldness in pursuing his attraction to Marion. We see a lonely young man, loss in indecision.  Oddly, Nicholson seems to have never been conscripted.
The determined and positive Marion does not wait to be called-up. She volunteers and, after training at Catterick, is sent to an anti-aircraft unit nearby. Here she is in her element, doing “her bit”. Claudia Carroll gives a strong and feisty performance as Marion, sympathetically and believably played. The father-daughter relationship with Ted is particularly touchingly displayed.
Lisa Varty as the Scots ATS Sergeant Williamson gives an empathetic and very positive portrayal as the NCO in charge of the “ackers”, the anti-aircraft crew. We don’t learn much of Nicolson’s background (and Whelan uses her to express anachronistic 21st Century feminist views rather than plainly justifiable WWII feminism) but she acts as the doubtful piggy-in-the-middle when Marion becomes the love-interest of Royal Artillery Captain Gryff East.
As the forbidden relationship between officer and other ranks develops, it also opens up differences in expectations and in the social structures that each belongs to. This has catastrophic consequences for East, when he unexplainably disappears, and for Marion when their love-nest, an unused army hut from the First World War near their gun emplacement, is hit in a bombing raid.

Felix Granger as East paints a finely characterised picture of a man of principle torn by internal conflicts. He has a unwarranted guilt about those civilians whom he has failed to protect in air raids. Marion unwittingly brings out deeply suppressed feelings from under East’s soldierly carapace. East is a difficult role, in that he has a long emotional journey in a short time (even their romance seems to advance very quickly … but it is wartime), but Granger’s performance is genuinely convincing.

Carroll and Grainger have just the right balance of passion and restraint that work within the period of the play, as moral codes crack under the vicissitudes of war.
Under the pressures of the first night of a world premiere there were some signs of nervousness amongst the cast, which manifested itself in a reduced pace and a difficulty in immediately inhabiting the characters, but even within the first half this seemed to settle, and certainly this should not be an issue with the first night out of the way, especially noting that the cast have noticeably taken warm possession of the play.
They certainly have an inspiring set to act on, and Ray Dunning’s set design incorporates some inspired transforms to switch between family bungalow and the army hut love-nest, with the anti-aircraft battery in between. The air-raid effects are quite awe-inducing, with Robert Walker’s lighting design and Alan N Smith and Paul Wilson’s sound design enhancing the confused fear enacted by the cast. Continuity between scenes is provided by a soundtrack giving a voice-over of Churchill’s speeches. (The voice-over actor is not credited in the programme but it sounds too pristine to be authentic.)
Period uniforms are always a figurative military minefield for the costume designer, but Sarah Andrews has a studied accuracy for the period, as with the civilian clothing, right down to Marion’s cami-knick’s.
(However, sorry to be really nerdy about other details. Gerberas, a South African exotic, would have been impossible as cut flowers in wartime England. And weren’t the ATS girls looking down the objective lenses of the rangefinder, rather than the eyepiece? Picky I know!)
Peter Whelan’s widow, Ffrangçon has said that Sleepers in the Field is “the play he wanted to write”, and surely Whelan would have been proud of Questor’s stage fulfilment of one of his last ambitions.
And the “sleepers in the field”? It would be a spoiler to let on, but suffice it to say that they protect. They protect, just as Captain East wanted to protect the civilians with his ack-ack guns and Marion wanted to protect what she held dearest. But then again, do you fight against those you hate, or for those you love?

Mark Aspen
January 2018

Photography by Peter Collins

From → Drama, Reviews

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