Visit the immaculately kept cemeteries to The Fallen in Flanders or The Somme and what strikes you, amid the thousands of perfectly aligned gravestones, are the words on each. Some say “An Unknown Soldier” while others give name, rank and date of death, and no more.
Only one stone fails to fall into line with its neighbours. “10495 Private A Ingham, Manchester Regiment, 1st December 1916, Shot At Dawn. One of the first to enlist, a worthy son of his father.”
It is a moving tribute and a telling statement of fact, that came after a lengthy battle between Private Bert Ingham’s grieving and distraught father, George, and the Imperial War Graves Commission. He wanted the world to know the shocking truth about how his son died.
Words are important to playwright Mark Hayhurst in his poignant new play, First Light, which opened last night on the Minerva stage at Chichester Theatre.
From the outset words define the characters and their lives. The pre-written postcards, hiding the reality and truth, that the young Tommies send from the Front Line to reassure their families; the inability of the illiterate George Ingham to read a vital report into the deaths of servicemen; the words of a young woman begging for some dignity for her family and dead brother; and, finally, the lasting words on young Burt’s final resting place.
Hayhurst stumbled across Ingham’s grave, alongside his best friend’s, Alfie Longshaw, more than 20 years ago and his research revealed that they were two of 346 British soldiers shot by their own side in World War One for cowardice and desertion.
He’s taken their names, and the few sketchy details known about them, and fashioned a new story about their final few months and it is deeply moving.
It opens with bluff Mancunian, George Ingham (Phil Davis at his best) waiting with his daughter, Agnes (Kelly Price). He looks tired, old, worn out by years of fighting. A proud and respectable working class man fighting the British government.
Rising young stars Tom Gill and David Moorst play Bert and Alfie, two childhood friends from Salford, who left the railway yards for adventure and “just to see what it’s like” in France in 1914.
We first meet them, and their pals, in The Somme. It’s July 1 and they are about to advance on the Hun at Montauban and Trones Wood in the first weeks of the war.
Their camaraderie is obvious. They’re swapping banter, playing jokes on each other, ribbing each other as only pals can. They’re about to go “over the top” and into the thick of it. The whistle blows and 800 naive young men and 18 officers leave the trenches. Moments later, we later learn, only 200, plus five officers returned.
The colossal loss of life, and the horrors encountered, have a profound effect on Longshaw. Unable to face going back to the Front – to kill men that he has no argument with – the erudite and gobby young recruit decides to flee and persuades the more reluctant Bert to join him.
Jonathan Munby directs First Light with the finesse of an orchestra conductor. It is graphically a masterpiece watching the troops, parade perfect, stand to attention in the rain (yes, inside the theatre) and march in and out with props, while shells are fired and fighting ensues to the rear of the stage and scenes of domesticity at the Ingham’s house are played out at the fore.
Fergus O’Hare’s tremendous immersive sound design pitches the Minerva audience into the Front Line, their seats rattling and resounding every time a mortar explodes. Alan Baranowski adds to the experience with rousing and atmospheric music.
Away from the battlefield we follow George’s’ own private war, against his own family and the authorities, which he wages after learning – five years after the event – the shocking truth as to how his son died.
First Light is an emotive, tragic and heart-rending story powerfully told. Tom Gill’s Bert steals your heart as an innocent and dignified young man trying to survive during a terrible conflict.
Burt isn’t eloquent or educated. He’s an everyman, the face of the thousands of men who answered the call to arms without knowing what to expect.
In contrast David Moorst gives us a cheeky and insolent boy who spends his spare time reading and educating himself, becoming politically aware and questioning authority. The cocky facade only drops in his final moments.
“I’m so frightened. I don’t want to die!” he sobs while Burt faces death with the courage he displayed on the battlefield.
Shellshock was only just being understood during WWI but many young men, mentally unable to face the fighting, were branded traitors and put in front of firing squads.
Here it is only dad George who has convinced himself that his son was ill rather than cowardly.
Phil Davis is always worth watching. He’s gone from an angry young man to a furious old one. As the stubborn and single-minded George Ingham he rails against the commission and his wife and daughter who just want to leave things be.
In quieter moments he is overcome as a bereaved father unable to cope with the devastating loss of his only son. His is the human face in the tragedy of war.
Compelling, absorbing and thought provoking with outstanding performances. I wouldn’t be surprised if it wins a West End transfer like Hayhurst’s previous Chichester triumph, Taken At Midnight.
First Light plays in the Minerva Theatre until July 2.
Poignant, harrowing and deeply moving. Mark Hayhurst’s First Light a fitting tribute to traumatised WWI soldiers shot at dawn.