Coope Boyes & Simpson started the latest leg of their In Flanders Fields project at London’s Foundling museum. As it transpires the choice of venue was a perfect fit and they slotted into the ongoing Foundling Folk nights. But above that there was an extra connection as the museum is in the process of its own commemoration of the role of foundlings in war.
The room is which the trio sang was large enough to hold a capacity of roughly 100 people in rows of comfortable but loose seating. There was no PA system, however, not that that proved a problem. At half time Jim Boyes even expressed his delight at not having a microphone to bother about, while everything from the songs and through the spoken word and poetry was perfectly audible. If anything it had the effect of heightening the attention and anticipation of the performance and other than that of the performers, the only noise of note occasionally drifted in from the five-a-side football across the road, although even that failed to break the spell.
I’ve heard or read about the idea of three people singing in harmony somehow creating the illusion of an extra voice and there were times when that seemed the case. After all Coope Boyes & Simpson have been singing together for roughly 20 years, are certainly capable of a near perfect blend. They are so well drilled, but also have that intuitive quality with power in reserve, but are also capable of great delicacy, with an endless supply of grace as the notes interweave and interlock.
There are two sets and as they enter from the back of the room already singing, there is very little in the way of introductions, as almost every minute of the show is used in commemoration of those millions affected and afflicted by WWI. All of the songs naturally feature on the recently released In Flanders Fields double CD. In turn the material is compiled from the many Peace Concerts Passchendaele that the trio have been involved with. It’s been an ongoing commitment to sing in commemoration of the event and to sing for the hope of peace, a quest to persuade the world of the futility of war, one person at a time if needs be.
Instead of banter between songs we are treated to war poetry, a few pertinent facts and figures and official bulletins, but also extracts form the Wipers Times, the satirical publication set up by soldiers in the trenches. At one point the poetry and the publication combine, as the latter complains of that everyone is suddenly composing verse and entreat some to turn to prose as well, for the sake of variety. It’s a point that hits its mark, yet at the same time, there are a couple of poems from Siegfried Sassoon, protesting against the generals and the general deception, with one from AA Milne about the OBE and lack there of amongst the rank and file, that are just as pointed and poignant.
Amidst the satire, gallows humour and surprisingly vocal outrage, some of the stories are of course shocking, especially one concerning attacks organised as a display to please on looking dignitaries, which amounted to murder in all but name. Within the mix was the reminder that there was a shared ancestry amongst some of the rulers in whose name opposing factions lined up, adding another ludicrous twist to the story.
That said the performance is finely judged and the mixture of songs negotiates the no mans land between elegiac beauty and bawdy, boys togetherness, digging deep into the subject and touching on some aspects of the war that aren’t often in focus. At times it’s incredibly moving and there are a couple of moments where my emotions get the better of me.
With the motivation and objective being the quest for peace, a long section is dedicated to the first Christmas truce and the, at first, hesitant emergence from the trenches by both sides. Naturally they find they have more in common than sets them apart and there is a report of an impromptu football match, which sets a precedent as the Germans win 3-2. Naturally enough such fraternisation is frowned up from up high and quickly curtailed.
The fact that the trio have long committed to singing such songs and telling the stories also means that they cover ground that others haven’t reached. One such is the curious Marchlands, a song that describes the border areas, which again, despite the political demarcations, the people on either side of what is after all often an arbitrary dividing line become indistinguishable, with a shared culture and even language drift. There are also songs about the effects of the war on the local people, many of whom fled, although those without the means to do so suffered horribly. Summary executions of civilians for spying or fraternising with the enemy were common. These are rightly regarded as war crimes, although the biggest crime was the war itself.
Finally Spring 1919 offers the hope that things can return to normal and that there is the chance to rebuild, as the seasons continue to change with the passage of time. It’s a song with a hymnal air that offers up another prayer for peace. It’s a fitting end to brilliantly conceived and executed show, making clear the message of remembrance as the motive to end wars. Why in any god’s name would we do it again?
Review by: Simon Holland
In Flanders Fields Tour
18/09 – Drill Hall, Lincoln
19/09 – West End Centre, Aldershot
20/09 – David Hall, South Petherton
21/09 – Heeley Institute, Sheffield
04/10 – Derby Folk Festival, Derby
More dates and ticket links here:http://www.coopeboyesandsimpson.co.uk/