Horseshoes for Hand Grenades – Review – East Riding Theatre
By Karl Hornsey, October 2019
The ERT’s autumn offering is a poignant and emotional story set in East Yorkshire around the time of the First World War, focusing on its effect on a small community and the varied characters involved. For the story, we have writer Richard D Cushing to thanks. Having moved to England from America, Cushing was struck by the number of monuments or markers of remembrance to those that lost their lives during the Great War, and decided to write a short story on the subject. That short story grew and grew, and became Horseshoes for Hand Grenades; and a beautifully told and acted story it is.
The five-strong cast is well suited to the intimate atmosphere of the ERT, and a simple, but effective set, with a delicate and haunting score, help to evoke life in a blacksmith’s forge, as the prospect of war turns from the unlikely into the inevitable. From the first moment to the last, Mark Rathbone takes centre stage as Isaac Ward, the blacksmith who drives the story, part-narrating, part-reminiscing about events. Rathbone’s immense physical presence, contrasted against his battle to contain or explain his emotions, are at the heart of the story, moving it along from initial optimism that there either wouldn’t be a war or, if there was it would be short-lived, to the unravelling of tragedies that followed.
It doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to picture these same events taking place in millions of households across the land, and Rathbone delivers a deeply personal performance that binds the production together. The other chief strand of the story is the developing relationship between Ward’s son, Andrew, and village girl Emily, played respectively and with wonderful maturity by Robbie Fletcher-Hill and Evie Guttridge.
Andrew has dreams of being an artist, eschewing the family line of blacksmiths, and his innocent wonderment at the world is gradually eroded by events across the Channel, while the first impact of war on the village is seen through Emily’s brother Julian, played by Daniel Rainford. The relationship between Andrew and Emily could have been something of a twee token gesture, but with sensitive writing and outstanding performances by the actors, it remains ‘real’ and incredibly moving.
The final member of the cast is probably the most well-known, especially in Beverley, where he is a regular in productions at the ERT. Malcolm Tomlinson plays Lord Stenton, a local businessman and estate owner who is initially a character of almost light relief, with his lofted view of the world and a dashing sense of fashion and adventure. However, as events inevitably take a turn for the worse and he becomes personally affected by the war, Stenton becomes immersed in the tragedy and establishes an ammunition factory, as the need for weaponry takes over from the need for a simple blacksmith’s forge carrying out simple blacksmith’s work.
At over two hours and on such an emotive subject, this is far from an easy watch, but a highly recommended one that offers a valuable reminder of what happened more than 100 years ago, and of the impact on people and communities that will never be forgotten.