[Photo by Elly Lucas – ellylucas.co.uk]
When asked to review Made in the Great War at Leeds City Varieties I wasn’t quite sure what type of show I was going to see. After interviewing Sam Sweeney himself a few weeks back (read the interview HERE), I was aware it was a production based on Sam’s own fiddle – an instrument that was half way through being made when its maker was conscripted to the Great War. The fiddle’s history created a means to tell the story of Richard S. Howard: a man that everyone had forgotten. I was also under the impression that I was going to hear music inspired by folk, wartime songs and music hall entertainment. All this was delivered. The presentation of the show however, was a surprise that exceeded my expectations.
The set – that throughout the show remained unchanged – was simply some wooden furniture ‘scattered’ (artistically) on the stage. A curtain of army netting was draped on one side and an assortment of violins, in various stages of completion, were arranged across the props. Four chairs were placed at the forefront. It was on one of these chairs that Sam Sweeney sat, upon his entrance to the stage, with the fiddle that inspired the show and simply introduced himself in an informal manner. It felt like a Q&A set up. One by one the musicians Robert Harbron and Paul Sartin came to join, alongside Hugh Lupton, the storyteller. Again, introductions were made and an informal explanation of the history behind the show followed. Then came the music.
With introductions to the musical choices and transitions made by Hugh Lupton voicing various poems and stories, here became a clear structure to the first half. A story, and thus a show were unfolding in a way I hadn’t expected. The music was mesmerising and the talent of the musicians undisputable. The folk influences really shone and the fiddle, played by Sam, was enough to keep me comfortably in my seat. The notes and melodies were almost haunting as the influence of the war marches were referenced.
[Photo by Elly Lucas]
A comedy act was brought in as Hugh Lupton took to the stage to bring forth the ‘Variety Hall’ sketch, as it were. Again the reference to war music allowed a real sense of history to come flooding to me as I realised this was the very same Variety Hall that would have produced such acts 100 years ago.
I had noticed that I was one of the very few younger people in the audience. Young enough at least to not know the words to the songs. I had heard of ‘The Scarlet and the Blue’ and on stage Paul Sartin was singing a beautiful rendition of the song, however, men and women in the audience a few generations older than I were singing along! This was powerful and emotional: people who still remembered, and in some part were connected to the war, surrounded me. It all felt very real here.
The second half was no less emotional as the full story of the fiddle and its journey came to light. The music was beautifully written and the fiddle sang its song as the story unfolded. Through the mouth of Hugh Lupton we were told about the brutal reality of life for Richard Howard, the man that never returned to finish his fiddle. It was haunting and powerful. The simplicity of the stage layout allowed the audience to focus on fiddle and the story of one man in the war.
But Made In the Great War was much more than this. It was a reminder of how easily we can forget those who fought for our country a century ago. As a young adult I learned numbers and dates: never the stories, the lives, or the people. It’s amazing how one man’s tale has become such a fast selling tour across the country. Then again, given the right means and the right person to tell it and seeing how powerful and simple the production was, it comes as no surprise that people were keen to see this show.
With the 100th anniversary of the Great War this year, Sam Sweeney’s Made in the Great War is a powerful artistic piece to remind us of the real loss: not the numbers but the individual lives and forgotten stories. This show was no masterpiece in stage production, but it was definitely a masterpiece in story telling and musicianship. I only hope that Made in the Great War will act as a precedent in the coming years, and as an example in researching and remembering all those who gave their lives in the name of the Queen and Country.
To find out more about the story of Richard Howard and Made in the Great War, visit www.madeinthegreatwar.com