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Keeping Up Appearances / After The Flags And Bands

Remembrance Sunday and the Armistice Centenary both fall on the same day this year, Sunday 11 November, and a number of local societies are choosing to commemorate the end of the First World War with their Autumn productions. Poulner Players are among the companies remembering and honouring those who have made the ultimate sacrifice with an evening of two short one-act plays set during WW1 (both directed by Peter Ansell). They are being performed in the uniquely laid out venue of Ringwood Meeting House, with the Grade II listed building (a virtually unaltered pre-1800s Meeting House layout, complete with its individual booths of either single pews or pews around tables), a constructed stage area and erected mobile lighting focused from the balcony contributing to a distinctive perspective viewpoint for the audience. The additional ‘Lest We Forget’ exhibition being held concurrently in the building is an emotive reinforcement of the theme running throughout the evening.

Keeping Up Appearances is not the well-known comedy about Hyacinth Bucket, but Elizabeth Bell’s adaptation of JM Barrie’s The Old Lady Shows Her Medals, while After The Flags And Bands follows the stories of four women between 1914-1918 through their conversations with each other, monologues and various letters. Although the latter play followed the interval, I’m going to comment on it first (as I feel that the order of performance would have been better suited the other way around); the ending of After The Flags is (without giving away spoilers) more downbeat with its dialogue and appeared rushed, as opposed to the more powerful poignancy at the conclusion of Keeping Up Appearances.

In After The Flags, the four actors each have their moments to shine, although they are most effective collectively rather than individually. The developing unity, deep friendships and comradeship are genuinely touching and encouraging, particularly from Teresa Miller as Annie, while Emily-Jane Morris’ enthusiasm through Lizzy’s growth and maturity is captivating; the interaction between the strong characters in these scenes appears more natural and authentic than their monologues to audience and some of their letter reading, proving how difficult this style of performance is to master.

For me, Keeping Up Appearances is the more powerful and memorable play of the two, with a rarely mentioned focus on the impact the war might have on a woman (or man) who doesn’t have anyone specifically away fighting (“Is it my war too?”) and the lengths that she may go to in order to feel part of the all-encompassing mood of the Nation at that time. The other running theme of what makes a mother is also enduring and provocative, making the play more complex and intriguing on a human, not political, level while still remembering the sacrifices made by an entire generation of young men.

Emma Blake is superb as Dora, not just with her meaningful delivery of dialogue but also her non-verbal narrative; every move, gesture and facial expression depicts a real, genuine person, running through a gamut of emotions with authenticity and conviction. Ethan Wilkinson perfectly captures the conflict between the righteous indignation of youth, the vulnerability of a young man searching for his place and maternal love, and his determination to do his duty. Morris (in the first of her two roles) brings so much energy and passion to her performance; she is completely charming and engaging – not so much the “slightly snooty, titled lady” but a warm, honest, caring human being.

As both plays are topical and timeless, with themes in each of them being just as applicable today as they would have been 100 years ago, it seems churlish to critique the production elements or performances, but (albeit minor) glitches should not be ignored, even if they can be forgiven. The sound effects in After The Flags are brilliant, but the interference from the speakers tonight was an annoying distraction from the tense and emotional performances on stage; hopefully this was a one-off technical issue, as essentially the sound effects, choice of music and simple, basic yet effective lighting enhanced the production. However, the curtain call, with both sets of actors in the same bow, was awkward tonight and detracted from the powerful performances that had preceded it.

I certainly don’t want to give the impression that this is a bad production – far from it! It shows the strength and indomitable spirit of the women and their unquestionable contribution to the war effort during this period piece, combined with humour, pathos and deep emotions, but ironing out the minor glitches would raise this from a very good to a great production.

Runs until 10 November, 7.30pm each evening, with a retirement collection and front-of-house sales profits donated to The Royal British Legion.