It’s been 99 years since a peace treaty was signed and the world saw the end of one of the largest and deadliest conflicts in history, World War One. Over 70million military personnel were mobilised from 32 different countries, one of those was Mr Harold Priestly from Nottingham...
Present Location Uncertain is a wonderful community project which has worked to restore and digitise 88 letters that were sent between Harold Priestly and his wife Eva while he fought on the Western front. One of the aims of the project, which has been funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, is also to share Harold and Eva’s story with the present generation of Nottingham folk. I was lucky enough to see one of two performances based on those letters at The Vine Community Centre in Hyson Green.
Performed under a beautiful stained glass window in the church hall on Bobbers Mill Road, Present Location Uncertain is community theatre at its best and as it should be: inclusive, organic and honest.
The set was well thought out and brilliantly put together, there were sandbags strewn around the floor and tea-stained A3 letters pegged out on a washing line which divided the stage from the rest of the church hall. Barbed wire was brought onto the stage at points by the cast to divide the space into two halves: Nottingham and the trenches.
With the youngest member at eight and the oldest in her sixties, the cast was very diverse. They worked seamlessly together, producing physical theatre sequences which helped to move the story along. It was during one of these sequences that we learn how Eva and Harold met, fell in love, got married and had a child in the space of what I would guess at being around five minutes.
They morphed from being a train, to the passengers on the train and back again to mark Harold’s journey away from Nottingham, away from Eva and ultimately to his death. It was at this point that my eyes filled up with tears, and stayed that way for the rest of the performance.
However, among the impending tragedy and the stark realities of the hideous conditions in the trenches were warmer moments and sometimes funny moments too.
Eva’s strained relationship with her mother-in-law, which she wrote to Harold about, was depicted perfectly by the actors and enabled moments that brought laughter and an element of relief during the darker times. Hearing Eva write to Harold about their son, Sonny – who was starting to talk in a Nottingham dialect to impress his friends – was pretty hilarious, but it was also a reminder that this piece of theatre was about real, Nottingham people.
This was also echoed in the fact that most of the cast are people from Hyson Green, with real Nottingham accents who brought the letters to life. The diverse cast, and lack of diversity in the roles available, meant that age and gender were not restrictive when casting. It meant that eight-year-olds were cast as soldiers in the trenches, and you can take my word for it, there’s something quite endearing about watching a child pretend to be a soldier smoking a fag and an older woman with grey hair share swap banter with “the lads”.
What stood out to me the most most the regularity of their letters: “I’ve heard nothing in over a week” Eva writes. I mean, sometimes it takes me three weeks just to text someone back, they must have been writing letters a couple of times a week. This really did bring home the worry and anxiety families would have felt when their loved ones were fighting overseas.
The title of the project, Present Location Uncertain, comes from the letters that were returned to Eva once Harold had died, before they’d had the official confirmation. Remember those tears I’d been holding back for the last half hour? They were off.
This was an innovative approach to a very hard story to tell, not just because of the historic significance but also because it is a story about someone local. Someone whose grandson was in the audience with us and someone whose life and sacrifice we now have the pleasure of knowing a little more about.
Present Location Uncertain was shown at The Vine, Hyson Green on 28 July 2017
Visit The Vine Community Centre Website