One last salute

WAR TIMES: Kathi Craig plays the part of an army recruiter, seductress and music hall star who encourages men to join up. Nick Robinson plays a soldier.
WAR TIMES: Kathi Craig plays the part of an army recruiter, seductress and music hall star who encourages men to join up. Nick Robinson plays a soldier.

Two well-known Manawatu personalities are wearing their hearts on their sleeves, joining forces for a show that is personal to them. Carly Thomas speaks to Pat Snoxell and Kathi Craig about the their show, a musical tribute to World War I, dedicated to their families. 

In 1914, during the height of the end of the first year of World War I, a symbolic moment of peace unfolded.

It was Christmas Eve in the trenches and something astonishing happened amidst one of the most violent events of human history. German and English soldiers disobeyed orders and stepped into "no man's land" in what was to go down in history as the Christmas truce.

They exchanged food, stories, photographs and songs. A game of football broke out on Christmas Day, camaraderie and goodwill was shared. The next day, in the clear light of war and the job at hand, the killing resumed, for king and country.

It's a scene which will be captured on stage in Palmerston North by a 60-strong cast in Pat Snoxell and Kathi Craig's musical tribute to World War I, A Call to Arms - For King and Country. One which Snoxell is sure will capture the hearts of the audience and stir memories and associations for many.

"We need to remember this dreadful period of history. Men were killed for very little reason; it is important that is not glossed over. The stories that we tell are very true, extraordinary."

Snoxell spent many hours researching the war before writing the musical, which intertwines wartime stories with song and dance. Sometimes sad, at times uplifting, an air of nostalgia is at the heart of it all. The show is personal and important to both of them; musical director Craig and writer/director Snoxell have memories of family members involved in the conflict.

Craig's uncle George Coster was seriously injured at the Somme and left for dead on the battlefield. He was discovered by stretcher bearers after the battle and taken to hospital, where he spent months recovering. Invalided at home, he was shell shocked and never worked again. Craig says she remembers as a child thinking her Uncle George was a wee bit strange.

"He never spoke of the war, I mean they didn't, did they, it was terrible. My dad (Alexander Coster) talked more but not much. He was in the Otago Mounted Rifles, but never made it to war, thank goodness. His foot was injured by his horse and he was declared unfit to send overseas. He was Greek and typically so, he fiercely loved his daughters."

Craig says she remembers playing shops with the ration books from World War II and there always being singing in the house.

"We had such a fun time sourcing music for the show and we are using pieces that I heard as a small child. Mum and Dad would sing It's a Long Way to Tipperary and Keep the Home Fires Burning. It is wonderful music that people will know and love."

Snoxell is dedicating the show to his parents and relatives. His father, Percy Snoxell, was a captain in the British Machine Gun Corps. He saw action on the Western Front and was wounded in 1917 by artillery fire. Snoxell said his father's injured shoulder troubled him throughout his life and he went on to become an accountant and lived out his years in Manawatu.

He "got on with life".

"He didn't talk about the war much at all; I was always amused that he was given a horse. He was a lucky one, I suppose, it was a good thing that he was injured. I might not have arrived if he wasn't." Snoxell chuckles at the thought.

There are light moments in the show and, as Snoxell says, music was an important part of the war, a necessary rope to grasp onto and lift spirits. Humour, too, was a way of surviving the hardship and grim realities of battle.

Craig says the women of war are also represented, the mothers, wives, girlfriends and nurses; the ones who stayed behind. Her favourite moment is at the opening of the show where there is a "call to arms for king and country". She is accompanied by dancing girls in a scene straight out of Vaudeville with the musical number I'll make a man out of you.

"I love it. Pat told me he had just the song for me, and I had to laugh. I play quite the sexy old girl, quite a tart and I am very suggestive with my ‘The army and navy need attention'," she says, laughing. She is a seasoned performer and being on stage is very much at the essence of who she is.

A former Mobil Song Quest winner, a national aria contest winner and a singing teacher, Craig makes a formidable team with Snoxell. He has brought more shows to Manawatu stages than can be counted any more and the pair are firm friends.

"We know each other well," Snoxell says. "We can tell it like it is to each other, thank goodness."

"This is a nice one to do together," Craig adds.

Snoxell's wife, Jenny Snoxell, and daughter Lois Blair have sourced and made the costumes and have tried to keep it as authentic as possible. Craig says the task of finding genuine World War I uniforms was a big one.

"We have been very fortunate," she says. "A family member of someone in the cast sourced us some authentic lemon squeezer hats and we have found all sorts of things from different societies. The ladies have been so busy getting it all together."

Craig's husband, Malcolm Hopwood, is in on the show too, conducting, so that his wife is freed up to be on stage. Craig says it really is a family affair, and sisters, mums and sons are all on stage together. The youngest cast member is 11-year-old Scott Lyall, who plays a paper boy "heralding in the news".

The Showcase Singers will be a large contingent of the cast, along with many of Craig's private students and a troupe of young dancers. Danica Manson is the choreographer who has been welcomed into the fold and is heralded by Snoxell as a "rising star".

Letters from Kiwi soldiers to their families at home are weaved into musical favourites such as Pack Up Your Troubles and O What a Lovely War; immortal music that has surpassed generational boundaries.

They are songs that hold familiarity and A Call to Arms will hold moments of memory, some tinged with melancholy, others with whimsical nostalgia. The point for Craig and Snoxell is to be vigilant with those memories, the stories and the history. A call to arms and a call to remember, a last salute, a tribute and a nod to our musical history.

A Call to Arms - For King and Country will be performed at the Regent on Broadway in Palmerston North on August 2.

Manawatu Standard