It’s not very often a writer is asked to take a second look at a play he has already reviewed, but on hearing that Danny Clifford had expanded his World War One piece, “From Heaven to Hell” from 2017’s single act into two acts, I have to say, I was sceptical, but interested, after all, I’d really enjoyed its debut run.
The original show, at Salford Arts Theatre, was rightly nominated for “Best Drama” at the Fringe awards, and it was hard to see how it could be improved, but improved it certainly was.
Once again, the production is directed by the fantastic Sue Jenkins (Brookside, Coronation Street) who, given the slightly larger space of the Footlights theatre, could have easily gone overboard and cluttered the stage, but its a credit to her abilities as a director that the staging is kept as minimal as before, but still allowing the actors to inhabit the larger space Footlights offers.
Writer, as well as producer and lead, Danny Clifford, (Noir, Reflections) has excelled himself with the rewriting of this emotionally tense piece, giving new characters both life and breadth, without taking away from the central love story that is already there, its difficult to believe that this is his first play as a writer.
The tale of John Harper (Clifford) and William Jones (Peter Ash, Hollyoaks, Coronation Street) and how their mates from the ship canal joined the Salford pals and head off to the Somme is based on true stories, and dedicated to the 24 Officers and 650 men from the battalion who didn’t make it back.
Against this backdrop, we see John fall in love with the partially sighted Mary (Emily Jones, Reflections) and William who is parted from his wife, Betty, (Caroline Wagstaffe, As You Like It, Octopus).
The rest of the cast is fleshed out by a supporting cast who really leap out of the stage and into your consciousness. We have the genial Irishman, Fergus Finney (Alex Slater, Shameless), the gentle giant, Charlie Edwards, (Luke Richards, Fresh Meat, Noir) The light fingered but harmless Ben Shifton (Matt Hall, Heartbeat, The Last Leg), and Sgt. Hunt (Sean Chriscole, The Crucible, Fine Comb Conversations) give the show a more “rounded” feel to last year.
Aside from a broader brush the larger cast brings to the table, the interplay between the pals and their sergeant is so well described as to be uncanny, as is Williams PTSD after a shell narrowly misses the boys.
The brutality of war is not shied away from on the home front either, as Betty goes to work in a gas mask factory, much to Billy’s disgust, and Mary falls pregnant when the boys come home for leave before their posting to the front.
The entire play is mesmerising, and there were certainly a few eyes a little less dryer as the final line of “We WILL remember them” rang out across the theatre.
This was one of the more powerful theatre pieces that Greater Manchester Fringe threw up over the last few years, and this revival was made all the more powerful given its expansion and rewriting. If Clifford can continue to write like this, then it won’t be too long before he garners not just nominations, but actual awards for his craft.
The direction is subtle, with three different sets again at times sharing the stage, and the lighting just right.