REVIEW: From Heaven to Hell (GM Fringe)

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It’s hard to rationalise in the modern world, just how senseless the slaughter of the First World War actually was. This play, From Heaven to Hell, showing for three nights only at Salford Arts Theatre, as part of Greater Manchester Fringe goes a long way to personalising just two stories from the Somme, drawn from true events, of the Salford Pals Battalion from 101 years ago.

Its the story of two lads, John Harper (Writer of the play, Danny Clifford) and William Jones (Peter Ash) who meet in the queue to serve King and Country, and the two women they leave behind as they head off to France and the war to end all wars.

John (Danny Clifford) and William (Peter Ash) meet at the recruitment line

John (Danny Clifford) and William (Peter Ash) meet at the recruitment line

Keeping the home fires burning are Mary (Rebecca England) who has been left partially sighted after an abusive relationship and who falls in love with John, and Betty (Caroline Wagstaffe) who feels guilty at sending her husband William to join the Pals.

Mary (Rebecca England, seated) and Betty (Caroline Wagstaffe)

Mary (Rebecca England, seated) and Betty (Caroline Wagstaffe)

As the story unfolds, we see just how cruel war is, both for those left at home, and for those who volunteered to fight.

Mary, who finds herself pregnant and waiting for John, and Betty, who is working in a rubber factory making parts for gas masks both wait for letters from the front, whilst John and William wait with the rest of the Pals for their chance at the front.

With a Sergeant (Sean Chriscole) who has taken a dislike to both of the men, and who is full of himself and the power he has over his men, William turns to drink to get through the horror of battle, whilst John just wants to get through the next two weeks to see his Mary and hopefully the birth of their child.

The real credit for the power of this production has to go to director Sue Jenkins, and stage manager Ann Brown whose use of the stage at Salford Arts Theatre is a master class of shared space.

At one point, there are three separate sets on the stage, and the players are able to slip between them seamlessly.

As the tale moves from France to home and back again, there is a visceral link between the stage and the audience which left many (including me) in tears by its conclusion.

I can only say that as someone who has seen modern warfare at close quarters, this production reminded me of losses I’d felt in battle, and how I longed for the revenge John feels when hearing his only relative has been killed at Ypres.

If the job of theatre is to move you, then in his writing of From Heaven to Hell, Danny Clifford has achieved it in spades.

Its beautifully acted, wonderfully directed and has a real heart that comes from research and knowing your craft where writing is concerned.

A percentage of ticket sales will go directly to the Royal British Legion.

As the final line of the play so vibrantly resonates, We Will Remember Them.

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