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Pack up your troubles

As I read the programme before the house lights went down, I had an uncomfortable feeling that P&P had got it wrong by presenting a show that is basically the rumbustious music of the two World Wars, but interspersed with some fairly harrowing readings and finishing with the solemnity of the Last Post, a silence, the reading of ‘They shall grow not old’ and Reveille. By the end, I still felt that there was a slight misjudgement in tone, but it had dawned on me that by putting their all into such a show, the cast are paying tribute in the best way they know to those who served and died. This was brought home most forcibly by the two pages of the programme on which members of the cast dedicate their performances to fathers, grandfathers, great-uncles and others who served their country.

Perhaps it is this special dimension that lifts the show, but it reaches a standard rarely seen on the local amateur stage, even from a company with the reputation of P&P. It is the first time that the three arms of the society – Musical Theatre, the Singers and the Players – have come together for a major production and if this is the quality that results, one hopes it will not be the last. Credit, first, to directors/choreographers Leanne Holland and Libby Russell: the choreography is imaginative within the limitations of the Barrington stage and has been immaculately rehearsed. Other local companies would give their eye-teeth for the dancing talent that P&P can boast – among the dozen or so front-line dancers, there is not a weak link.

The same could be said of the singing. By my count, some twenty of the cast are involved in solos or duets, and the depth of talent is hugely impressive. Much of the credit for this, and for the small but proficient band, must go to musical director Adam Tuffrey.

In such an effective ensemble production, picking out highlights may be invidious, but I’ll risk it. Rosie Luxford gives ‘Stuff like that there’ everything she’s got – and she’s got a lot. She is backed by particularly striking choreography, a nice contrast to the comedy extracted from the number immediately before it, ‘Run, Rabbit’. Paul Simkin and Simon Dade’s harmony singing in ‘Keep the home fires burning’ is unexpectedly moving. Jeanette Hancock’s voice deserves better than George Michael’s mediocre ‘Mother’s pride’.

As in all societies, the men are well outnumbered, but they more than hold their own and the unaccompanied harmonies of ‘Hanging on the old barbed wire’ are the musical highlight of the first half. The other outstanding ensemble piece is ‘A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square’ by the P&P Singers.

Among the diary extracts, letters and other prose pieces that punctuate the musical numbers, Chris Burdon’s abridged telling of the story of War Horse is one of those special theatrical moments when a large audience is completely still, completely rapt, completely in the hollow of the speaker’s hand. Veronica Ryder reads a vivid and moving letter from a wife to her submariner husband, recounting how daily life goes on during the Blitz; it brings the realities of such separations very close to home when, having read the letter, Veronica reveals that the writer was her own mother.

P&P have their ups and downs over the years, but when they are good, they are very, very good, and in this show they are at their best. See it if you possibly can, on 9 November at 7.30 or on 10 November at 2.00, 5.00 and 8.00.