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Early One Morning

Published by: Kirstie Niland on 14th Oct 2014 | View all blogs by Kirstie Niland
Octagon Theatre Bolton

The PR said tissues would be needed and she was right. Early One Morning is an enormously moving and thought-provoking play. What makes it so heart-breaking is that this story of a soldier who fought bravely for his country in the First World War, yet was shot for desertion when he mentally broke down, is a true one.

Private James Smith (Jim) from Bolton, was just 26 when he was executed at dawn on 22nd August 1917 by his fellow soldiers. There was no medical evidence and no one to say goodbye to. He wasn’t even allowed to write a letter to his girlfriend, Lizzie, before he was tied to the post.

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As the audience take their seats to the sound of gunfire and bombs falling all around the Octagon arena, we are quickly enveloped into Jim’s nightmare, powerfully and sensitively recreated by Bolton playwright, Les Smith.

“Describe Hell,” orders the narrator, Sergeant Fielding. Well this would definitely be it. A broken solider, shaking and suffering from flashbacks, desperate for the warmth and safety of home, being sentenced to death.

Michael Shelford’s portrayal of this terrified young man is so stirring that even though you know he’s just playing the part, you want to reach out and help him. Sitting just feet away as he trembles, unable to speak in his own defence, I feel angry. Why aren’t they helping him instead of killing him?

And so “the dance before death at dawn begins,” Sergeant Fielding tells us. Colin Connor plays the narrator with a hypnotic Irish accent and a commanding presence, keeping us painfully at attention to the horror Jim and his mates are faced with, and the pragmatism they must adopt in order to cope.

Privates Webster and McKinney along with Lance Corporal Bradley are horrified at being offered 10 days leave as a reward for erecting the post Jim will be tied to, and then digging a hole for his body. “Fuck off, order me to do it!” shouts McKinnel, with James Dutton putting in another compelling performance following his lead role as Stanhope in the Octagon’s last production, A Journey’s End.

Also from the previous cast is Ciaran Kellgren, equally engaging in this role as the frightened and bewildered Webster, whose civilian job was a bus conductor. His shock and vulnerability is tangible as he fails miserably to support Jim as the hour of his execution approaches; and when he falls flat on his face in the mud after being tied to the post as a guinea pig. “I shouldn’t be here," he cries, “I should be on my bus.” Like Jim Smith he is not emotionally equipped to deal with this. Who would be?

Artistic Director David Thacker has staged another military coup with Early One Morning. Using some of the cast from A Journey’s End, who also double up on their roles, has strengthened their ability to identify with the era, giving their performances extra depth. Meanwhile the dark set features wet muddy mounds which make the soldiers’ movements realistic; whilst enforcing an appropriately unsteady gait for the dreamlike sequence where they waltz with their guns, accompanied by eerie Wurlitzer-style music.

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The “dance to death at dawn” contains heart-wrenching moments, one of the most tear-jerking being the declaration of love by Lizzie Cartwright, played by Bolton actress Jessica Baglow. She brings a touching reality to the no-nonsense nurse who promises to stand by Jim no matter what. And stand by him she does, in Jim Smith’s fractured mind, right to the end as he asks for news of home. Bolton Wanderers? “Still losing,” laughs Lizzie. 

You know it’s going to happen but even as Jim is manhandled by his own comrades, struggling and begging for his life as they tie him to the post, you somehow pray that it won’t. But it does.

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Private Jim Smith was finally shot at dawn by six men who missed the target - a little white disc placed over his heart - on purpose. One of them, Private Richard Blundell, was ordered to finish him off, and it haunted him until his own death 70 years later, when his final request was to seek forgiveness from Jim Smith’s family.

This play begs so many questions. How could these men turn on their fellow soliders when there were already so many atrocities around them? “What can anyone do for a soldier who cries in the dark?” asks Major Watson as Jim Smith’s life hangs in the balance.

The very least that could be done. Thanks to the former MP for Bolton South, Dr Brian Iddon, and campaigners Charles Sandbach and Bill Miles, Private Jim Smith’s name has finally been added to the Bolton Roll of Honour in Bolton Town Hall. And thanks to Les Smith his story has been told, and his family can rest in the knowledge that their loved one is now forever commended for what he truly was. A good soldier.

In honour of Private James Smith, a brave young man from Bolton, go and see Early One Morning - and don’t forget the tissues!

Early One Morning is at the Octagon until Saturday 1 November 2014. Tickets are from £26.50 - £10 on 01204 520661, or at www.octagonbolton.co.uk

Photographs by Ian Tilton

Comments

2 Comments

  • Cameron Lowe
    by Cameron Lowe 3 years ago
    Thanks, Kirstie. This sounds like an amazing story worth seeing.
  • Kirstie Niland
    by Kirstie Niland 3 years ago
    I would really recommend seeing this, such a sad story but a great tribute to Jim Smith.
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