Octagon Theatre, Bolton

Until Saturday, November 1

AS the Octagon Theatre continues to mark the centenary year of the outbreak of World One War, the mud, fear and death of the battlefield are laid bare for audiences.

Early One Morning is Bolton writer Les Smith’s true story of Great Lever soldier Private James Smith who, after three years of fighting in some of the war’s fiercest battles, finds himself on trial for his life.

Plunged into their Hell on Earth, as soon as you enter the auditorium, Michael Shelford instantly cuts a heartbreaking figure as 26-year-old Private Smith.

He is on stage for 25 minutes before he even utters a single word, too ‘shell-shocked’ to speak, carry out his duties, unable to escape his nightmares or stop his cries in the dark.

Act I is particularly heart-wrenching, switching from the broken man in the trenches to a young man falling in love with kind-hearted nurse Lizzie Cartwright, played by Jessica Baglow, who cares for him in Bolton’s Townleys Hospital.  

From glimpses of a touching relationship to the haunting scenes when Lizzie visits Private Smith in his dreams, the pair put in moving performances.

Colin Connor, who serves as actor and narrator Sergeant Fielding, drives home the horrors of war and I found myself hanging on his every word.

Listening to the characters talking about the simple things they yearn for – a pint of mild at The Swan on Bradshawgate or to hear a woman’s voice – further brings home the realities of the unimaginable situation they found themselves in.

All the cast members put in compelling performances, bringing the compassionate writing to life to create a fitting tribute to Private Smith, who still has family living in Bolton.

James Cotterill has created a simple but fantastic set, with mud squelching underfoot, where countless men found themselves buried after slaughter.

Friday night’s production also shared a date with World Mental Health Day, incredibly fitting seeing as the times of 100 years ago failed to recognise post-traumatic stress disorder, instead branding men as cowards and deserters.

The lighting and sound, of rifles and bombs, also add to the tension and emotion in artistic director David Thacker’s powerful production.

Lest we forget - and as long as the Octagon and other theatres like it continue to put on plays like Early One Morning to such a high standard, we never will.