One hundred years on from the start of the First World War, and still the numbers defy comprehension. With the death count well into the tens of millions, and no remaining veterans to speak of the conflict, the task of preserving and telling the human stories of World War I has now been passed on to those with connections to it.
Sam Sweeney’s connection is an unusual one. In 2008, the Bellowhead violinist purchased a new fiddle, which when examined closely was found to contain a label bearing its maker’s name – Richard S Howard – the year of its construction (1915), and the legend ‘Made in the Great War’. Sweeney and his father got to work on researching Howard’s story and ‘Sam Sweeney’s Fiddle: Made in the Great War’ tells it with verve, humour and sensitivity.
The show is divided into two parts. The first, as Sweeney explains, is dedicated to showing off what the instrument can do. So he plays sets of tunes, at first by himself, and then with “my favourite musician in the world” Rob Harbron on concertina. Bellowhead accomplice Paul Sartin and storyteller Hugh Lupton (known for his collaborations with Chris Wood) soon take the stage, too – the former to join in the lovely Scarlet & the Blue, and the latter to tell apparently random, deeply engaging stories that have their origins in Greece and Africa. Sartin takes lead vocals on Cicely Fox-Smith’s mournful Home Lad Home (which he has of course recorded with Belshazzar’s Feast), and there’s a lovely original tune named Rose Howard, included here simply because there wasn’t space for it in the second half.
As promised, the quartet, dressed in shirts and braces (with the exception of the belted Lupton) bound back after a brief interval to tell Richard Howard’s story. It’s done with a neat lightness of touch – acting, video projection and music, all glued together by Lupton’s story. “It’s my job to put flesh on the bones,” he tells us, in the first of many clever references to the stories he told in the first half (which, it turns out, weren’t so random after all).
So we learn about Richard, his home life with his wife Martha and daughter Rose, sharing chats at the kitchen table, beavering away in his workshop and preparing for work, as a musician. Lupton’s language is captivating; he humanises the fiddle, telling us “it demanded to be played”, and referencing its back, belly and teeth. Sweeney, Harbron and Sartin’s accompaniment comes either through subtle musical additions, or through movement. Again subtlety is key: there are no OTT shows of acting or mime, just subtle movements that suggest, for example, how the group might prepare for a variety performance.
And that performance is the show’s first big set piece. Deftly staged, it conveys musical numbers, magic acts and an amusing ‘romantic’ segment (in which Sartin bats his eyes at a discomfited Harbron) with frenetic pace. At one point, Sweeney takes on the unfamiliar role of a terrible fiddle player. Seeing him wince as he saws away at the screeching fiddle is perhaps the last thing the audience expected – and as a result it’s laugh-out-loud funny.
When he gets home, however, Richard learns that he has been conscripted, and the tone becomes more serious as he bids his family – and his fiddle – farewell, and heads off to the trenches. The video element becomes more important here – we see men marching, smiling, smoking, digging and resting. Particularly awe-inspiring are the huge explosions, throwing dirt high into the air in slow motion as the story of the Battle of Messines is told. Lupton is in his element here, adding flashes of detail – unknowable but believable – about Richard’s thoughts as he attempts to press forward.
The story’s conclusion is beautifully judged – sensitive and moving, but not mawkish. Sweeney’s Ballad of Richard Howard is poignant and direct, while the finale – in which he leads the musical trio in a beautiful, sombre composition – accompanies a video backdrop that is as perfect a tribute as you could imagine. The audience doesn’t know whether to sob or applaud… so it does both.
It’s a simple story, really, and one of millions. But in helping us to remember (and re-member) Richard Howard, Sweeney and co have come up with something rather special. If you are able to make it to any of the remaining dates, I unreservedly recommend that you do so.
Sam Sweeney’s Fiddle: Made in the Great War is on tour until the end of September. To see more of Emma Goymer’s photos of the show, check out the Folk Witness Facebook page. Give us a like while you’re there, and don’t forget you can follow us on Twtter, too