The show opened with Sam Sweeney stepping onto the stage and taking THE fiddle from its place in the spotlight. He played ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’ and ‘Jean De Paris’ before introducing Rob Harbron who joined him for ‘The Battle Of Prague’ and ‘British Grenadiers’. As Sam pointed out these were four tunes that led a double life as both folk tunes and military marches – this was the beginning of an “overture” to the show itself.
The fiddle is one left unfinished by Richard Spencer Howard of Leeds when he went to war in 1916 and which, though a long series of events, was bought by Sam Sweeney who realised that there was a story behind the instrument.
Paul Sartin and Hugh Lupton completed the line-up on stage. Paul sang ‘The Scarlet And The Blue’, a song which has passed through countless regiments and, indeed, armies and Hugh recounted a story from his show, Barbed Wire For Kisses which immediately set me thinking of War Horse. It was the perfect link to ‘Home, Lad, Home’. The first set closed with ‘Rose Howard’, an extra track on the album which didn’t find space in the show.
On record, the focus of Made In The Great War is Hugh Lupton’s narration – the story is the most important element. On stage, other factors take over. The set poses, variously, as a music-hall, a trench and a battlefield. There are visual elements, film and slides as well as the set dressing and the performance is cleverly choreographed – there is barely time for a round of applause between the set pieces. Indeed, applause sometimes feels intrusive.
There was clowning during ‘The Palace Of Varieties’ and drama. ‘The Battle Of Messines’ was signalled by furious drumming by Sam, synched to film of explosions, which made the audience jump after the relative quiet of ‘June 17th 1917 – Zero Day’ and there were two more highlights. The first was Sam’s singing of ‘The Ballad Of Richard Howard’, alone in a spotlight, with so-subtle support from Rob and Paul. It is a powerful song owing something of its origins to ‘The Cruel Sister’. Finally he played ‘Epilogue’ alongside film of him playing the same tune standing by Richard Howard’s grave in Belgium. Initially, he watched the screen, carefully matching his playing with the film but later he looked down and let the music take over.
There can be no encore. You can’t follow that but the story continues. It transpires that a second Howard fiddle has come to light – Sam’s is No.6 and now No.2 is known to have survived – and Richard Howard’s grand-daughter, not knowing the full story, has contacted Sam. Made In The Great War has been toured twice and I hope that Sam and the company will tour again. It is a show that has to be seen by as many people as possible.
Sam Sweeney plays ‘The Last Post’ by Richard Howard’s grave:
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