Quaker Meeting House, v40
18.15 (ends 18 August)
**** (4 stars)
This is an extraordinary piece about real people who followed the promptings of their consciences and refused to fight or take any alternative to military service in the Second World War. Using their own words, and their voices as recorded in interviews, their story is told by people who live in the area and in some cases are direct descendants of the men and women who formed the community at Collow Abbey Farm in Lincolnshire.
Using the framing device of the Legsby village drama group deciding what to ‘do’ next, and deciding to put on a show about ‘what happened during the war’ and take it to the Edinburgh Fringe, we are drawn into the lives of the various people who were drawn to become part of the community. At times the device is a little bit clunky, but mainly we are gripped by the immediacy of each person’s experience, their hopes, their principles – and their inexperience. Many of the Conchies were young lads of seventeen or eighteen who either had never left mum and home before or always had servants to take care of things like laundry, and whose idea of personal hygiene wasn’t always particularly well-developed!
The forming of the community was grounded in its historical context. After WW1 people saw wounded and traumatised men all around them, and everyone was saying “Never again!” With the Depression of the 1930s bringing widespread unemployment and poverty, people were more concerned with trying to get the basic bare necessities of life – food, warmth and shelter. Suddenly the idea of refusing to fight wasn’t so prevalent, the Peace Pledge Union was fading away, and conscientious objectors had to register and come before the dreaded Tribunal, where they were subjected to abuse and intimidation and in the worst instances imprisoned for their beliefs. One day Dick Cornwallis, son of the British ambassador to Iraq, met Roy Broadbent, son of the owner of a large engineering firm which manufactured arms: both were conscientious objectors and together they decided to set up a training farm which would work as a co-operative and affirm the idea of co-operation instead of competition.
There were so many different personal perspectives and comments – a kaleidoscope of fragments slowly revealed a picture of life on the farm and the gradual change of attitude of the local people towards them, helped by the military raid on the farm, and the incident of Hubert and the Sack of Grain, while the fragility of life was emphasised by the story of airman Pete and the eggs… All went well for a while, and then things slowly began to fall apart: Arthur the bee-keeper was still convinced of the rightness of the communal way of living, but for many of the others it became an impossibility, and slowly the community unravelled.
Does this mean the experiment was a failure? For Chris, one of the community children, the answer is most definitely no: living in that place at that time was a special experience for each person, who took that experience into whatever way of life they pursued thereafter, and the effect each person would have and still can have on the people around them nurtures the possibility of increasing the number of Conchies who are convinced that refusing to fight is the only possible way to live.
It sounds very wholesome and worthy, and at times getting the message across threatens to overpower the drama — but then there are moments of sheer delight,
and others when the truth of each person’s experience shines out, truly a beacon of hope in this currently insane world. Most moving was the personal appearance of the nearly-centenarian Donald Sutherland, now the only adult member of the community still alive: and the roll-call of alumni of the community is impressive – actor Jim Broadbent is the son of one of the original founders, while Michael Morpurgo’s uncle, Francis Cammaerts, only left the community when he left to contribute to the war effort as a distinguished leader in the French Resistance, while the Broadbent Theatre [started as the Holton Players by COs who stayed in the village after the war, and recently re-named].
This is a moving and thought-provoking drama, whose message needs to be heard as the tide of aggressive competition and self-interest threatens to rise and drown us all.