Wartime quest blends real people with fiction

Reporter: Paul Genty
Date published: 05 September 2016


(Oldham Library, and touring to local venues, to September 16)

JOYCE Branagh is well known in the Manchester area as a director, but less so as a writer and even less as an actress - and anyone seeing this lively one-hour, one-woman drama will wonder why.

Written by her and directed entertainingly by Alyx Tole, the script uses the combined curiosity of dozens of local history fans of all persuasions to mark the women of Oldham in the First World War.

But if you expect a grim, fact-heavy diatribe about the horrors of war, think again. Branagh's script wears the burden of its research very lightly indeed.

It uses mostly real people as its characters: Dame Sarah Lees, wartime doctors Catherine Payne and Joan Watts, decorated nurse Sarah Hallam, pals Ethel Beaumont and Mabel Drinkwater - whose name is on Oldham's war memorial - and local music hall entertainer Sarah Rosebury, who tells the story. However, much of the plot is fiction, but beautifully concocted from a cleverly rounded story of love, friendship and family quest.

The show packs a lot in, but is never overwhelmed by its subject matter and isn't even slightly preachy about war, accepting it instead as the status quo of the times and something to be overcome so life could go on.

Sarah relates, while backstage waiting for a show to begin in 1923, the story of her wartime quest to find her 15-year-old brother Sid, who lied about his age to join up. She is almost run over by Dame Sarah, is cajoled or brought back to earth by her friends Mabel and Ethel, joins a concert party for the boys overseas, meets the two doctors and nurse in various camps en route and craftily narrows down her search from the stage each night.

It's an hour of constant movement, of characters carefully created from vocal (and in one case adenoidal) inflexion and of the horror of war brought discreetly to the stage by the almost constant background sound of shelling.

Branagh never flags, is warm and friendly throughout and makes her own script come cosily to life, despite the rather impersonal atmosphere of the performance area.

The show has now moved on from Oldham Library and is in Chadderton and Failsworth libraries on Tuesday, Lees and Fitton Hill libraries on Wednesday, Crompton and Royton libraries on Thursday and the Coliseum studio on Friday. Check www.joyce for times.