The Gladstone Sisters — Robin Guy, Nicole Milne, and Doreen Taylor-Claxton from left to right —rehearse "It’s a Long Way to Tipperary" before opening night. Julia Moran, Centretown News

Wartime letters inspire The Gladstone’s ode to remembrance

By Julia Moran

The Gladstone is bringing Canadian stories from the two world wars into a theatrical spotlight this Remembrance Day Weekend.

Plosive Production’s Voices from the Front: The Radio Show, directed by Teri Loretto-Valentik and co-created by John Cook, features passages from real-life letters of frontline Canadian soldiers writing home to loved ones.

At a recent rehearsal before the show’s Nov. 8 opening night, the strains of old-timey radio music filled the Little Italy performance space as members of the nine-person cast took their place on stage. They were dressed in 20th-century period costume; the women with victory curls, the men in suits, red poppies pinned to their lapels.

Laurence Wall, CBC Radio personality, solemnly approached centre stage and recounted the 1914 assassination of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand, the event that triggered the First World War.

CBC Radio newsman Laurence Wall plays several parts in the production. Julia Moran, Centretown News.

Unnamed radio announcer is just one of Wall’s many roles in the production. He also voices the renowned CBC war correspondent Matthew Halton, as well as former prime minister Mackenzie King.

“You try to subtly change your voice, slightly higher or lower pitch, difference cadence. That way you can suggest that it’s a different person you’re playing,” said Wall.

Intermittent breaks feature The Gladstone Sisters, who perform various war-era songs, including Henry James Williams and Jack Judge’s It’s a Long Way to Tipperary. Gladstone Sister Robin Guy, like other cast members, had relatives who fought in the wars.

“I love how sincere it is and how touching it is. Both eras of music are wonderful to sing,” said Guy. “Listening to these letters from the First World War gives me a piece of history that was never personal for me. When you listen to these letters, it’s not abstract anymore. These are real people and they’re real letters.”

Loretto-Valentik agrees. “These are real letters from real soldiers, moms, sisters, girlfriends, nurses, generals, and leaders. We used their actual words. You can’t avoid it being personal because it’s real,” she said.

When her husband found letters from 1914 written by a soldier in the walls of a house he was renovating, Loretto-Valentik was inspired to create a moving production about Canadian war-time lives.

With co-creator John Cook, Library and Archives Canada and historian Stephen Davies from the Digital Letter and Image Archives in British Columbia, Loretto-Valentik compiled historical photographs, letters and broadcasts and crafted them into a play featuring numerous real-life characters and verbatim reports.

Some of the letters were amalgamated to create Will, a soldier on the front lines and composite character who exchanges letters with his loved ones. Characters like Will, a soldier whose letters are full not of battlefield stories but thoughts of his sweetheart, Meg.

“We picked these stories because they were telling human personal truths. Every now and then you’d get eight or nine letters from a particular soldier and the last letter was four lines from the war office telling his relatives that their son wasn’t coming home,” said Loretto-Valentik. “That powerful emotional impetus is what drove us to make it about the kids, the soldiers, and not about the war and the politicians.”

Plosive Productions has staged eight previous radio shows, including Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds, and Winnie the Pooh. Voices from the Front: The Radio Show taps into a deep vein of Canadian history.

“Canada has a rich, varied, incredibly emotionally impactful relationship with the world wars. We forget that sometimes,” said Loretto-Valentik. “We want to remind people. Lest we forget sounds so cliché, but it’s absolutely correct. We need to remember that these are real people. We need to remember their bravery.”

Wall said the individual stories hit home. “Usually when you read about military history you’re talking about big battles involving thousands of people, and here you’re talking about individuals. It’s not the macro history, it’s the micro,” he said. “It’s the individuals who are telling about their hopes and fears. It’s very powerful to see. It’s a real honour, and I’m very glad to be a part of it.”

Voices from the Front: The Radio Show plays from Nov 8-11 at The Gladstone, 910 Gladstone Ave.