The year is 1920: not long after the guns fell silent at the end of the First World War. Remembrance weighs heavily on everyone’s mind, but debate rages on the best way to honour the millions of bodies still stranded in France. Miss Parker, an incongruously chirpy emissary from the Imperial War Graves Commission, is here to curry favour with Mrs Ashwood, the bereaved mother of a famed war hero. But as we learn, when someone dies, there are many things about them – the bad bits – that we do simply choose to forget.
The quarrel between Parker and Ashwood, played out in impeccably British style over tea and ginger snaps, forms a satisfying – if exposition-heavy – route into the storyline. Parker’s false brightness, captured beautifully by actor Heather Daniel, contrasts tellingly with Ashwood’s all-too-genuine grief. But there’s much more to Harry’s life than the public knows; reminiscences about his childhood and his army career draw in a handful of further characters, each with their own wartime story to tell.
It’s a smart attempt to take a wider look at the impact of conflict, using the common bond of a single family to keep the story real. Unfortunately though, I don’t think it quite works. The differing strands are just too chunky to weave together; it feels like the narrative is switching from topic to topic, never quite committing to any particular one. That’s especially true of the references to the civil war in Ireland, an intriguing discussion that, once opened, deserves far more stage time than is available to it here.
At times too, it feels like playwright James Beagon is ticking off a list of mandatory references – here’s the wartime romance, there’s the Spanish ’Flu. But a remembered horror from the frontline trenches is a mandatory element of any WW1 drama, and here it’s delivered with conviction by Rob Younger – who’s excellent in his role as a square-shouldered Irish infantryman, not entirely at home in this upper-crust world. There’s a clever dream sequence as well, where the characters pass around the dead Harry’s jacket like a talking stick, unearthing disturbing memories as it moves from hand to hand. Yet these interludes jar with the naturalistic tone of the rest of the piece, and the carpet of war letters that covers the back of the stage belongs to a more stylised production than this one proves to be.
The pity is that when the play does spend time on a single concept, it finds plenty of interesting angles to explore. The most obvious example is the debate over the war graves themselves, where the genteel sparring between Miss Parker and Mrs Ashwood shines light on still-relevant questions of privilege and equality in death. Yet the play’s deeper themes concern the glorification of memory – not just on a national scale, but within the dynamics of an individual family. Some thought-provoking tensions emerge when the characters dare speak ill of the dead.
So there’s a lot that’s positive about Lest We Forget, but there’s a lot that could be trimmed as well. Nonetheless, fans of period drama will enjoy this well-performed example – and if you haven’t yet had your fill of WW1 centenary plays, you’ll find this one does have some fresh insights to explore.