TRENCH – A North West Theatre Arts Company Production

I’d never heard of North West Theatre Arts Company until a few weeks ago. Didn’t know a theatre even existed this close to home. I decided to see Trench, an original World War 1 musical. Written and directed by Prab Singh, it’s based on a story told by Prab’s wife’s Grandmother and on true accounts in letters and journals. It’s a love story and you know from the start how it’s going to end.When you go to a theatre, watch a performance and feel like you’re the only person in the audience it’s not because the performance is good – it’s because it’s VERY good. Trench is VERY good. There are several reasons why it makes you feel this way.

The set’s not elaborate. It doesn’t have to be but it is convincing. We’ve seen enough WW1 films to know what the trenches looked like, barbed wire and sandbags need no explanation. The production is ‘stripped back’ to basics and the imagery is enough for you to know that those are guns, tin hats and bandages. What you are left to concentrate on is the performance of the young actors playing the parts of soldiers, wives, girlfriends, children and friends.

You hear their words, listen to beautifully sung lyrics and feel their emotions.

In the back-ground a few realistic sound effects, clever lighting and the odd drift of smoke allows you to ‘sense’ the horrific reality of the battlefield scenes and the noisy atmosphere of the mill floor back home. The attention to detail is subtle and convincing.

This sensitivity in the production allows the performers to take full control of the stage. They grab your attention from the start and don’t let it go again until the finish. The only break from this is the interval when you look around and realise you’re not the only person there after all.

I take my chance to read through the programme while the lights are up. There’s a piece by Mark Beaumont (Production Designer) about how the army and Manchester Pals were formed, as well as photographs of the cast. I was struck by the fresh young faces and chilled to think that they would be similar in age to the soldiers, wives and girlfriends they were portraying. In WW1 an estimated 250,000 British soldiers were teenagers.

I buy a poppy every year. I’ve watched the remembrance service and laying of wreaths at the Cenotaph on TV countless times. Don’t think I’ve ever felt, really felt what it might have been like. Having no choice but go over the wall when the whistle blew or wait for that telegram or pick up the pieces and get on with life afterwards.

These young people made me cry. I was just glad the lights were back down…and I knew from the start how it was going to end!

Newton Heath Shed

If you took a bus or train to Newton Heath in the 1960s, your approaching stop would be signalled by a familiar landmark, visible from a good mile away: the huge concrete coaling tower at the railway sheds. Opened in 1876, this was by far the largest depot on the old Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, stretching between Thorp Road and Dean Lane and lying between the lines to Rochdale and Oldham.Newton Heath locomotive depot in 1967, from the Thorp Road end, with the coal tower dominating the scene. St.Mary’s Road school can just be seen in the right background

The carriage works on North Road had opened the previous year, and in the 1890s extensive carriage sheds and sidings were added on the opposite side of the Rochdale line, completing a huge complex. Many of the houses off Lightbowne Road were built originally for railway workers.

The shed had 24 lines (‘roads’) inside, four of which formed a repair shop, nicknamed ‘the parlour’ by shed staff. At its peak, it accommodated over 200 engines. The coaling tower was added by the London Midland and Scottish Railway in 1935, the shed roof also being replaced. The north end of the yard was extended across Dean Lane, which originally ran beside the Railway Hotel and beneath Newton Heath station, and a new, larger, turntable added.The south-facing end of the buildings in July 1966; the half-width steam shed (left), with the diesel shed and refurbished repair shop on the right. The south-end turntable is in the foreground

Entrance to the station was diverted via paths running from St.Mary’s Road near the ‘hooped’ bridge and, to preserve the right of way towards Kenyon Lane, access was granted along the platform, over the footbridge and down steps near the signal-box, on to the continuation of Dean Lane (since filled in).A view towards Manchester from the footbridge at the original (1853) Newton Heath station on 30 March 1967. The steam shed is on the left, with the coaling tower in the distance, the carriage works beyond and the sidings to the right of the signal box. Today, only the tracks in the foreground remain – all else has gone. [Photo: S.P.Wilson]

By 1961, half the shed had been rebuilt to accommodate diesel units and the ‘parlour’ re-tracked, but there were still 140 steam and diesel locos based here for the many services, principally to the north, west and east of the country, as well as local trips. Besides the ‘home’ fleet, many engines from other areas often called in for servicing.

Like many others, I was a frequent visitor in the shed’s latter years, and it became a place to meet friends and observe the constant movement of locomotives in and around the yards, and trains passing on the adjacent lines. Even on winter nights, coal braziers, lit to keep the water columns from freezing, provided welcome warmth for huddled ‘spotters’ comparing notes.

The railway staff were generally very friendly and, if you showed a genuine interest, were only too happy to explain the workings of the equipment and engines (and, with luck, might let you drive one up to the turntable!). Close to the north-end turntable was another landmark: St.Mary’s Road School. Opened in 1869 as Newton Heath Wesleyan School, it became a Board school in 1903 and closed in 1968.A ‘Black 5’ loco backs off the north-end turntable in August 1967, with the school on the far side of St.Mary’s Road. How many lessons were disregarded, through gazing out of the windows? [Photo: S.P.Wilson]

The station was closed in December 1966 but not demolished until March 1968; the shed closed to steam on 30 June 1968, regular steam working in Britain ceasing altogether in August. For a while, a handful of withdrawn steamers languished, their fires dropped forever, awaiting a tow to a scrapyard: the last four went in October. However, on 8 September, the old shed dispatched one last steam visitor: no.73050 from Patricroft, which had been bought for £3,000 for preservation, and had come to Newton Heath for a final ‘fettling’ before making its way to the Nene Valley Railway at Peterborough. It is still running.8 September 1968 and the shed hosts its last steam visitor, hissing at the diesels lurking within

The steam buildings were demolished in March-April 1969 and the coaling tower in July; having defiantly withstood an attempt with gelignite, it leaned at a crazy angle for several weeks before finally succumbing. In 1971 the diesel shed was extended and a washing facility erected on the coal tower site, leaving the refurbished ‘parlour’ as the only part surviving from steam days.

Today the depot still services diesel units (rather fewer since Metrolink took over some local services), but is much reduced from its former busy, if sooty, glory.