War epic deserving of many a standing ovation

Tideline Runners stage WW1 themed musical 'Sam and Isla Forever' at the Maltings
Tideline Runners stage WW1 themed musical 'Sam and Isla Forever' at the Maltings

Epic, powerful, moving just three words I heard uttered by people coming out of The Maltings last Thursday and there could have been many other adjectives used.

I’ve held The Tideline Runners on a pedestal since their barnstorming debut in 2012 and last week they took things to a new stratospheric level with a show that conjured up every human emotion.

‘Sam & Isla Forever’ provoked joy, empathy, grief, hope and yes there were tears from this reviewer.

Tackling such a sensitive and timely topic like First World War was a bold move on the part of writer/director Robert Wilkinson but his script and guidance and the cast’s delivery meant it came across as far from opportunistic, rather a fantastic piece of theatre which acted as a touching tribute to all those affected by the Great War.

Leads Frazer Smiles and Rachael Cross gave performances that would melt the stoniest of hearts as a couple who fell blissfully in love then saw their lives broken by the atrocities of war.

When Frazer takes on a role he completely embodies it with every movement and mannerism and his portrayal of Sam was every inch as good as his Joe in last year’s superb ‘The Words in the Wires’.

You could tell he and Rachael relished the challenge of being the first ever people to play their respective roles and like Frazer, Rachael’s performance was absolutely faultless.

She gave warmth, wit, strength, vulnerability when each was required and was everything a director could want in a leading lady.

Like over 300 others, Sam was a soldier who had his good name tarnished by being branded a coward for something he did on the battlefield.

And it was the fight to have him pardoned that took the action to the 1970s where a trio of actors held the fort with real finesse.

Daniel Cox’s Martin Thackeray was a troubled soul. With his own court case hanging over his head, Martin battled to clear Sam’s name and Daniel took the audience on every step of the way with every grimace or clench of fist encompassing raw emotion.

The calming influence by his side, Ingrid Welsh was played by Marie Tucker in her first appearance with The Tideline Runners. And she couldn’t have asked for a better debut. I’ve seen Marie shine in a number of musicals but it was fantastic to see her get her teeth into such a good acting role and excel with flying colours.

And it’s hard to believe that the third piece of the 1970s jigsaw, Max Manning is still not out of his teens as he gave a performance way beyond his years. You could have easily written off his character Wallace as the office dogsbody but in his exchange with his heartless and typically British MP father, played in fine fashion by Gary Robson, Max upped the ante and commanded the stage.

Back to the trenches and man for man the actors who became a regiment of the KOSB were absolutely superb, their performance boosted by some amazing choreography from Chloe Smith.

Some of them are only young teenagers but they summoned up a strength which would win many a battle so hats off to Paddy Joe, Patrick Davenport, Jonathan Combe, Matthew Jenkins, Ross Slack, Daniel Flannigan, Lewis Murray, Ryan Reay and Glen Shepherd and particularly to David Simpson who as Owen Wilde really stepped up a gear, acting and singing wise, to give easily his best performance to date and to the versatile and always entertaining Mark Vevers as Dr Elliot Giles,

On the home front the girls were also a force to be reckoned with, Diane Renner leading the way as the Kent’s matriarch Edna, showing great conviction in her delivery of both dialogue and lyrics. She showed she could do fun in ‘Here Come The Girls’ at Easter and last week Diane proved herself a great asset to any drama.

Melissa Steven’s Ruth was a character that gave the audience plenty of reason not to like her; admitting she was still in love with Sam and playing a big part in him going back to war but you could also have a great deal of empathy and after cutting her teeth on the likes of ‘Be My Baby’ and ‘Our Day Out’, Melissa took it up a notch and really showcased her abilities.

Each era had its key supporting players such as the impressive Slink Jadranko and David Lougmair as Captain Nigel Fowler and Siegfried Sassoon, Samuel Reed as a very enthusiastic priest, Lisa Summers as Jessica, Derek Butler as older Private Walker and Susan Wilson , Kate Stephenson and Bill Inglis as Eleanor, , older Isla and older Sam- the latter two reducing many of the audience to tears with an incredibly moving final scene.

While the cast’s acting was enough on its own to give many a goosebump, the show’s score helped strengthen its impact. Killers-esque opener ‘We Were Here’ was a real musical epic as was closing number ‘Always Coming Home’ and they were peppered with more light hearted numbers such as ‘Open Arms’ and ‘Never Write A Song About You’.

Robert has done it again as ‘Sam & Isla’ is the show everyone is talking about and deservedly so.