Peter Whelan's great play on the domestic impact of the first world war has a resonance in the current bellicose climate
In 1914 the mayor of Accrington responded to Lord Kitchener's call to arms by promising to raise a whole battalion.
Within 10 days over 1,000 men had enlisted. Swept up in the euphoria of the establishment's propaganda, and as an escape route from bitter lives of poverty and unemployment, the young men formed the 11th Battalion (Accrington) East Lancashire Regiment. They became known as the Accrington Pals.
Peter Whelan's play on their experiences is one of the best ever written about the first world war.
It not only exposes the real horrors of that conflict but explores its impact on a whole community. Much of the war remains a backdrop to the drama which is played out back home and it is the lives of the women left behind that is the real story.
Whelan's characters are real, sympathetic and humane and he shows how friendships grow amid the hopes and fears for the future.
The women need to learn to rely on their own wits by developing new skills which allow them to do the men's work. Those bonds give them the strength to march on the town hall to demand an end to the lies and cover-ups about the true horrors unfolding in France.
This is a beautiful, poignant and important play and the Royal Exchange's excellent production does it great justice.
James Dacre's subtle direction and Jonathan Fensom's excellent design create an atmospheric fog of claustrophobia both at the Somme and in Accrington.
The acting is first class with Emma Lowndes outstanding as the fruitseller May, who wraps herself in a shawl of cold stoicism as a barrier to her true feelings for her young cousin Tom. She has great support from Sarah Ridgeway as her sassy, warm-hearted friend who dreams of her future with the charming Ralph.
The Accrington Pals first saw battle in the big push for Serre in 1916. Over 700 sons of the town went over the top. Nearly 600 never saw their home again.
Those tragic facts remind us why, as we still spew out macho leaders hell bent on war, plays like Peter Whelan's become ever more important.
Runs until February 16. Box office: (0161) 833-9833.