Theatre review: This Evil Thing

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A century after the First World War, aspects of the history of that period are emerging which have been long swept under the carpet.

Star rating: ****
Venue: New Town Theatre (Venue 7)

Among these is the anti-conscription movement, and the pacifists who, for ­reasons of conscience, refused to take on any duties – even 
non-combative ones – which could be seen as supporting the war effort.

Some of these “absolutists”, of whom there were at least 1300, were beaten and imprisoned, held in silence or in solitary confinement. At least 70 are known to have died in the course of the war, and a further 31 lost their sanity. After the war ended, they were not allowed to vote for five years, and faced discrimination in finding work.

Writer and performer Michael Mears packs a wealth of history into his one-man show, from the stories of individual objectors to the movement which supported them (the No Conscription Fellowship) and its leaders, who included philosopher and anti-war activist ­Bertrand Russell. At times, the play groans under the weight of historical information it has to carry.

It is strongest when he allows the stories to take ­centre stage, such as that of Bert Brocklesby, a 25-year-old schoolteacher and Methodist lay preacher from Yorkshire, who was one of a group of objectors secretly sent to the front. There, in the theatre of war, if they refused non-combative duties they faced real risk of court martial and the death penalty.

Although there are times when Mears’s performance becomes overly didactic, it’s a thorough and at times gripping account of an important subject. Moreover, he doesn’t shrink from turning the show’s questions back on himself, as a pacifist whose principles were never (by his own admission) put to the test in the way these men’s were.

Until 28 August. Today noon