Le Grand Return – opening night review by John Rigby

Saddleworth Players’ latest production, at the Millgate Arts Centre, Alan Stockdill’s Le Grand Return, opened last night to a packed and appreciative audience. This play, based on reality, tells the story of an elderly ex-soldier who despite his poor health is determined to return to Normandy to attend the fiftieth anniversary of the D-day landings, and specifically to revisit the French house where his best friend was killed.

The play begins with broad but painful comedy. Tommy Hardaker and his two oppos are bickering away their old age in the day room of the Coldrick Nursing Home, keeping boredom and pointlessness at bay with dominoes, heartless jokes about each other’s infirmities and a last-ditch campaign to thwart their common enemy, Matron. However the script penetrates beneath the Last of the Summer Wine caricature of the three cantankerous old chaps playing daft japes. As the scene unfolds it creates a back story for each man, revealing unexpected elements of wistfulness and regret.

Verity Mann’s production is strong on visual humour, particularly in the dead-of-night scene where the three heroes appear kitted out in wonderfully unconvincing outfits intended to spirit them through customs in the guise of devil-may care golfers. As Matron coldly points out, they would be picked up by social workers before they got to the end of the lane. Yet there is also a constant shift of moods, from farce to pathos, matched by the audience’s response which often moved from non-stop laughter to thoughtful and attentive silence.

The Millgate’s veteran actors carried off their parts with confidence, energy and faultless comic timing. Their different approaches to their roles gave the performance an impressive variety. Ian Perks was outstanding as Tommy Hardaker, moving from the initial impression of the irritable Gimmer with the Zimmer to reveal fresh levels of sensitivity, recalling the terror and exhilaration of the landings: “I was surrounded by death, but I’ve never felt more alive.” He had excellent support from Ian Crickett as Alf the ex-Bevin Boy, who is treated by his pals as the simpleton and weak link in the chain, but is not as daft as he looks, and from John Tanner, the officer-class toff (but only from the Pay Corps) who is the Captain Mainwaring of the trio. Completing the cast was Alayne Whitworth, who did well in the difficult task of sustaining three different parts, metamorphosing from Matron, the dragon with the heart of gold, to the apparatchik in the Belgian customs office, and then, against type, as the French landlady with her own painful memories of the Liberation.

I had wondered how the production would handle the demands of the very different settings of the story. This problem was solved with ingenious simplicity. On stage, there were minimal settings with just a table and a few chairs, while the wartime background was supplied by and ever-changing variety of black-and-white projections on the screen behind, and by atmospheric music of the time.

Overall an intelligent, sensitive and enterprising production which reflects credit on all concerned, and a poignantly appropriate choice for the day after Brexit.

John Rigby

Saddleworth Players will perform La Grand Return at the Millgate Arts Centre from 1 – 8 February. Tickets available from the Millgate website (millgateartscentre.co.uk) or by telephoning the Box Office on 01457 874644, Tuesdays 2pm–5pm, Wednesdays and Thursdays 2pm–7pm, and Fridays and Saturdays from 9:30am–1pm.

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