Letters to Aberlour

Aug 29 2015 | By More

★★★★☆     Effectively affecting

Just Festival at Central Hall (Venue 295a): Fri 7 – Mon 31 Aug 2015

Letters To Aberlour stands out from many of the recent depictions of the horrors of the First World War by virtue of its stately staging and simple humanity.

James Urquhart’s play, presented by New Strides Theatre at Central Hall in the Just Festival, tells an all-encompassing story by focusing on one corner of Speyside.

Letters To Aberlour. Photo by and copyright of Paul Henni.

Letters To Aberlour. Photo by and copyright of Paul Henni.

Aberlour children’s charity began with a huge orphanage in Charlestown of Aberlour itself. Over 200 of its ‘old boys’ enlisted in the First World War and at least 60 of them died, with many of the others never really recovering.

In the absence of anyone else to write to, and feeling those at the orphanage to be their family, many of them sent letters home to Aberlour from the front, and these letters form the basis of the narrative.

As a framing device, there is a visit to the closing of the original orphanage in the 1960s by Arthur Mylam, one of the many whose sense of duty instilled in him by his upbringing caused him to enlist.

Within this framework comes the story of a large number of characters; it is some time before it is clear that there are only five in the cast, so effective are the transformations between parts. The structure of many short scenes becomes slightly obstructive, but the changes between them are swiftly and carefully handled.

There seems to have been pruning of the text at some point; the play is considerably shorter than listed in the Fringe programme, and since it was first mounted last year, this can only be because some material has been removed. Certainly the jump from 1915 to the end of the war is abrupt after what has gone before. This is not necessarily a bad thing; in this form, there is a tautness and tension to Ruth Urquhart’s direction that holds the audience’s attention extremely well.

impressive and versatile

The archive material has been cleverly inserted into an overarching structure that provokes questions without supplying easy answers. Only a rather artificial discussion about the charity’s subsequent use of smaller homes seems out of place. Otherwise, the dilemmas of the situation are crystallised by the conflicted character of Canon Jenks, whose dismay at how his inculcation of Christian duty has led to so many deaths is well conveyed by the hugely impressive and versatile Simon Weir.

Leters To Aberlour. Photo by and copyright of Paul Henni.

Letters To Aberlour. Photo by and copyright of Paul Henni.

Patrick Capaloff Fowler’s energetic, physical performance is also worthy of comment, while Anthony Bentley’s quiet grace as Arthur Mylam contains many shades of character. He is also adept at changing from a much younger to an older man in the blink of an eye. Jonathan Durie and Julia Jack also acquit themselves well in a variety of roles.

Too often depictions of these events try to convey their unprecedented scale in an epic sweep that simply makes it difficult to comprehend, and accordingly too easy to dismiss. Here, the local focus gives it a humanity and a focus that sticks in the mind. The decision to keep any actual fighting offstage is a good one; instead what we see are the results, expressed in devastating loss, cruel irony, and crippling regret.

There are political and human points made, but they rise naturally out of the narrative rather than being overlaid on it. This gives the storytelling a spare, limpid quality that makes it convincing.

Running time 1 hour 25 minutes (no interval)
Just Festival at Central Hall (Venue 295a), 2 West Tollcross, EH3 9BP
Friday 7 – Monday 31 Aug 2015
Daily (not 17) at 8.30 pm
Book tickets on the EdFringe website: https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/letters-to-aberlour
Company website: http://www.newstridestheatre.co.uk

Paul Henni website http://knicksen.com


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