Remembrance Sunday 2018 was marked fittingly in Black Hound’s affecting and lyrical piece At the Going Down of the Sun. The horrors of what happened to a generation of men in Ypres and The Somme are known to us all, but what writer and director Patrick Withey has smartly done, in his lovingly crafted work, is to show that the horrors for these men did not cease when they re-crossed The Channel. For these men and their families, life as they knew it before conscription would be shattered for ever.
In the upstairs space of the intimate Radstock Museum near Bath we are shown two worlds, poles apart, yet both settings for emotionally and literal scarred battlefields. In the relative comforts of the Rhodes household, patriarch George (Geoff Hunt) and his wife Sarah (Tracey Rupp-Rawlins) have to adjust to their son Jack (a touching Oliver Edwards) returning home, as well as reintegrating battle scarred squaddies back into their family run business. Meanwhile in flashbacks, we see Jack and his brother Peter share a tank in Amiens and the fate that hangs inevitably on the future of these bands of brothers.
Impressively for a company so young, the work bears a maturity that belies their young age (Withey is only 17, the same age as several of the cast). It mostly shies away from the melodramatic (although when it whiffs towards it, the work is at its least effective) and concentrates on the effect it had on all those who lived through it, not just those who fell on the battlefield but also those who were left behind. Mothers lost sons, children their fathers and women never heard again from their childhood sweethearts. Those who did return could not articulate the devastation that they had witnessed; new forms of warfare that those who remained could not even begin to envisage.
It’s the family scenes that hit hardest. It’s in the little moments that the trauma of war on everyone is best articulated; the setting up of a place for dinner for someone who will never grace the table again, a survivor’s guilt about remaining when a comrade, a brother, a son is gone. Withey and his cast pitch these moments beautifully, things left unsaid articulated so much stronger than the empty platitudes that come out of mouths of those desperate to reconnect.
Yet the play also views its history with a historian’s unsentimental eye. A generation of young men conscripted to war opened a world of possibilities for the women assigned their roles at home. The youngest Rhodes’ daughter Hazel plans to go to university, an option which no doubt would have been much more fraught for a girl brought up in the countryside before the war, when early marriage and a couple of children would be their expected lot.
If the flashbacks to the war lack the moving elegy of the homefront scenes, it powerfully brings home how young the infantryman who fell on the French and Belgium shores were. Little more than boys with their lifetimes ahead of them, for survivor and fallen alike, primes were cut tragically short.
Made up of local actors and Withey’s fellow students, some of the acting lacks specify at points, which also occasionally trickles down into the design (photos are rendered in colour some 45 years before Kodak released the option into even the richest of family homes) but all told this is a mighty fine achievement from the Black Hound gang. It’s a fitting remembrance for those who shall never be forgotten made by a generation whose possibilities have multiplied, at least in part, because of the sacrifices made by their forebears.
It should be noted that Patrick Withey and a number of members of the production team are students of mine at Bath College. This is however, an independent production with no input from the college and has been reviewed as such in agreement with Patrick.