Stunning, poignant, universal: Blood + Chocolate. Photograph: John Saunders
Stunning, poignant, universal: Blood + Chocolate. Photograph: John Saunders

Review: Blood + Chocolate
Venue: The streets of York, Friday October 4, 2013

It is easy to get carried away with the numbers. This was theatre on a vast scale. A cast of 200, with an audience of 300, following the action in a promenade performance through the city’s streets. More than 400 costumes, with 600 local people in the support network. Big numbers. Impressive stuff.

But the really impressive stuff was how a story almost too big to tell was told through the words and experiences of Rowntree’s chocolate factory workers.

Indeed it was Oscar Frederic Rowntree, in 1914, the High Sheriff of York, and JB Morrell, Lord Mayor, who sent tins of chocolate to every York soldier at the front – this was the seed of Blood + Chocolate, the story of how the workers and employers of York’s chocolate factories were affected by the First World War.

Writer Mike Kenny, fresh from his large-scale successes with The Railway Children and the 2012 York Mystery Plays, tackled the unwieldy vastness of the subject with deftness: focusing not on the enormity of war but on the detail, the intimate and the deeply personal.

The result was not so much a plot-driven drama (for we all know the story so well), more of an intelligent study of the war’s effect on the ordinary folk of the city; how they examined their faith, beliefs, patriotism, fear and courage.

Equipped with headphones, the audience was expertly marshalled to the space by the Art Gallery, facing the De Grey Rooms, upon which were projected the introductory filmed pieces. We meet George and Maisie (Luke Adamson, Edith Kirkwood), on the point of falling in love; Conscience and Sarah (Richard Standing, Jo Mouseley), a Quaker conscientious objector and his partner torn by affection for him and her sense of patriotic duty.

The cast of brothers, parents, lovers, bosses and workmates were introduced as real-life traffic queued for the traffic lights at Bootham Bar and the No 13 bus to Haxby West Nooks creaked round the corner.

Seconds later the call went up for recruits to join in the fight for a “just war; a Christian war”. Then, whoosh, a troop of volunteers was snaking through the standing audience. They had our attention and we were off with them, marching down High Petergate to the Minster.

The streets of York echo to the sounds of the Great War for Blood + Chocolate. Photograph: Chris Mackins
The streets of York echo to the sounds of the Great War. Photograph: Chris Mackins
A show full of moments
A show full of moments
The white feather is handed to Conscience (Richard Standing). Photograph: James Drury
The white feather is handed to Conscience (Richard Standing). Photograph: James Drury

What followed was a series of vignettes. Less of a linear story, much more a multi-faceted portrayal of many stories combining in an overall impression of a city on the move, scores of different stories in a time of turmoil: farewells on the monument opposite the Dean Court Hotel; a moment of existential self-doubt at a Minster doorway, “this uniform… I’m rattling around in it”; a heartbreaking foreshadowing as a younger brother bemoans the fact that his elder brother had signed up before him, “One day I’ll be first to do something”; the inevitable white-feather moment; the equally inevitable “we’ll be home by Christmas” moment.

Of course, it would be impossible to portray this period without such landmarks. Others followed later: the chocolate tin that stopped a bullet, the needless death seconds before the armistice, the shell-shocked survivor, the grieving wives and sweethearts.

As we tracked the soldiers down streets where armies have marched since Roman times, members of the three theatre companies involved (Pilot Theatre, York Theatre Royal and Slung Low) could be seen on every corner and in every doorway down Stonegate (past a huddle of bewildered present day smokers outside the Yorkshire Terrier pub) to St Helen’s Square.

There the Mansion House was transformed into a chocolate-packing section of Rowntree’s works, with the women bantering and teasing from the windows as they lovingly packed the commemorative tins with a chocolate bar for every man of York on the front line. In an evening of moments, there were few as poignant as when one of the production-line girls kissed the tin on its way.

As we went down Davygate with Auld Lang Syne in our headphones, past Gap, Cooplands, Browns, Barratts and Coast, we were with them, fighting for freedom; freedom to walk the streets, freedom to shop, freedom to love your country yet still disagree with it. (Are you listening Daily Mail?)

There is always a risk with a promenade production that the walking from scene to scene can create a disjointing of the action. But that was largely avoided because the scenes here came very much as a series of cinematic jump-cuts rather than a single narrative. When World War One is the backdrop and the story and those defining moments are known so well, writer, Kenny, director Alan Lane and designer Anna Gooch have to take a different tack.

And they did – opting for an album of snapshot moments in an impressionistic approach which created exactly that: an overall impression. They developed a sense of the mood and spirit of the times, with the city itself as much a cast member as the lead players.

The Rowntree girls. Nicola Bradley as Phyllis and Edith Kirkwood as Maisie. Photograph: James Drury
The Rowntree girls. Nicola Bradley as Phyllis and Edith Kirkwood as Maisie. Photograph: James Drury
Luke Adamson as George and Anthony Harrison as Fred. Photograph: James Drury
Luke Adamson as George and Anthony Harrison as Fred. Photograph: James Drury
Emma Gibson as Britannia. Photograph: Dan Cashdan
Emma Gibson as Britannia. Photograph: Dan Cashdan
The wardens on night watch. Photograph: Dave Lee
The wardens on night watch. Photograph: Dave Lee

In Parliament Street, more vignettes: moving extracts of letters from the front being read out, reminders that chocolate was the “smell of home”, a conscientious objector in a uniform labelled “Coward”. Then, a breathtaking set piece as bombs fell and shots rang out where Splash Palace once stood – and the side of a wagon dropped down to reveal a chilling tableau – frozen in suspended animation, the moment of death as soldiers charged ‘over the top’, all the while a delicate piano coda played as nurses picked the dead from the mud.

It was a stunning and macabre musical box.

After an interval with, naturally, hot chocolate at All Saints Pavement, we strolled via Coppergate to the set piece finale at the Eye of York, with hospital and home front scenes played out on the green at the Castle Museum and battlefield action atop Clifford’s Tower, 150 yards away.

This was a moving masterpiece of direction and synchronisation of dialogue and music, complete with a chorus of nurses performing a bedlinen ballet reminiscent of the Olympic opening ceremony.

Meanwhile, on the steps of the Crown Court, we glimpsed the chocolate factory workers, this time sorting boxes of fancies for Christmas, each piece of confectionery being likened to a type of person, including mis-shapes.

The centrepiece was a spooky, frosted, muslin-covered tree in among the nurses and hospital beds, each containing mis-shapes of a different kind. The bandaged tree hinted at both damage and renewal as the words of Wilfred Owen came through the headphones and all the storylines were gathered up.

This event – and event is the right word – was so much more than just a performance. It was a rare night blessed with good weather, a coming together of the city, a celebration of our shared past, and a triumph of creativity, writing, action and direction, with a stunning and seamless display of technical skill, all helping writer Mike Kenny achieve his aim of making the particular, universal.