Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Stepping into the Darkness and into the Boots of WW1 Volunteers; What Was It like to Volunteer in the First World War? DAVID WHETSTONE Joined a Group for a Quick Immersion in No Turning Back

Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Stepping into the Darkness and into the Boots of WW1 Volunteers; What Was It like to Volunteer in the First World War? DAVID WHETSTONE Joined a Group for a Quick Immersion in No Turning Back

Article excerpt

Actor Lawrence Neale at the No Turning back attraction at the Gala theatre Durham City FLYING in the face of theatrical convention, they have removed all the seats from the Gala Theatre in Durham for an "immersive experience" called No Turning Back.

Part of Durham Remembers, the county's commemoration of the Battle of the Somme, it aims to put you in the shoes of the young men who responded to Lord Kitchener's call for volunteers 100 years ago - and of some of the women whose lives were affected.

"It's 1916," states the Gala brochure. "Your country needs you, the army needs you... You join one of the thousands of County Durham men in enlisting in the army, volunteering to fight for your country." Groups of up to 25 people are guided through the dark auditorium which has been transformed into a series of First World War scenes or staging posts.

I joined one of the groups on Thursday afternoon, stepping out of the sunshine and into the darkness to be met by urbane Second Lieutenant Simon Taylor (actually actor Lawrence Neale) who welcomes us as new recruits to a pals' battalion of the Durham Light Infantry.

Actually, he steps out of a photo of real-life Durham recruits expanded to life size.

Who knows what horrors these men later endured? Many of them didn't live long enough to tell - and probably wouldn't have talked about it even if they had.

Out goes Second Lieutenant Simon Taylor (soon to be promoted to Captain - promotions came quickly when the death toll was high) and in comes Sergeant Jack Cotton.

He is very much not urbane. In fact, he shouts quite a lot. One of our number is urged to bayonet a sack - and then yelled at for not 'killing' it hard enough.

Behind the sacks is another blown up photo of real-life recruits charging with bayonets fixed 100 years ago.

You can see them laughing. What an adventure they were having back then! It wouldn't have stayed fun for very much longer. Photos like that can break your heart.

Once in, as the title of this theatrical production makes clear, there was no way out. You would do your duty, even if it meant almost certain death, or you would be shot for cowardice or desertion.

No play can possibly invoke the sick fear which must have accompanied many of these men into the trenches although it can have a go at capturing the gallows humour.

Recently, reading interviews with some of the last surviving combatants of the First World War, I was interested to see one of them praising a scene in Journey's End for being "just like it was".

Journey's End, first performed in 1928, was written by RC Sherriff who served in the First World War, being severely wounded at Passchendaele and earning the Military Cross (a 21-year-old Laurence Olivier took the lead role in the play).

Here I sense that Lawrence Neale is working hard and not only because he has to play various roles. …

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