Review: Letters to Aberlour

On Sunday I travelled to Coldingham to a production of Letters to Aberlour. The play, written by James Urquhart and co-directed with James’ daughter, Ruth, is a moving tribute to the Aberlour Orphanage and its “family”. The letters of the title are those written “home” from the front from the start of World War I by young men from the orphanage, but the play sources magazines, produced by the orphanage.

The play has the continuous thread of a visit to Aberlour in the 1960s of one of the letter writers, Arthur Mylam. He shares with a young member of staff some of the thoughts he had in the war: the fear, the loneliness and seeing comrades killed. The young woman makes the assumption it must have been an unpleasant experience to live in Aberlour and Arthur, with quiet dignity, puts her right. He makes it plain that all the men who went to war were members of the same orphanage family.

The actors read letters they are writing as they dodge shells and bullets. They also read letters from the old Home and supporters of the orphanage. The warden of the orphanage, Canon Jenks, plays a central part in the play, receiving War Office notifications of the deaths of sixty two boys whom he counted as family. His grief is evident and the playwright includes the doubts he begins to feel about the boys having gained their sense of duty to fight from their orphanage upbringing. The actors from New Strides Productions play several parts. Many themes are touched on which still resonate. Did the men who joined up have a choice or had the orphanage so instilled duty that they felt they had none? There is a chilling sermon from the Bishop of London in which he encourages men to kill as many Germans as possible in the name of Christ. The play is a timely reminder of the horrors of war. To say the play is moving is an understatement. The intimate atmosphere of the Village Hall Theatre enhanced the play, one that deserves a wider audience.

Catherine Brotherston.