Review: Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme

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First published in The Times, Friday May 27 2016

Two Stars

 

As we approach the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, it is hard not to become overwhelmed – numbed even – by the scale of the carnage wrought on the bloodiest day in British military history. Frank McGuinness’s 1985 play stands out among dramatic depictions of the First World War for its reluctance to stick to a tried-and-tested formula. Its final sequence takes place in a trench on the morning of the first day of the battle, before a single shot has been fired.

Over the course of four scenes, the playwright spreads his focus among eight disparate young men whom we first meet in a barracks when they volunteer to serve with the 36th (Ulster) Division at the start of the war. McGuinness immediately wrong foots our expectations by leaping forward to the boys’ first home leave, presenting a collage of intimate two-handers, exploring the effects of the front line on the boys’ psyches, individual struggles with faith, cowardice and sexuality and their sense of identity as Protestant Ulstermen.

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Pic: Johan Persson

Jeremy Herrin’s production for Headlong, in association with the Citizens, Abbey Theatre and Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, is frustrating: efficiently staged with one or two scenic flourishes yet emotionally muted and unengaging.

 

While the director’s reverential approach fails to satisfactorily reconcile the heady mix of naturalism and lyricism in McGuinness’s script, it also inadvertently exposes the weaknesses of the play, which stretches its thematic concerns over too many characters and merely dabbles in the historical complexities of the war raging in mainland Europe while a second conflict is getting underway back home in Ireland.

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Pic: Johan Persson

The characterisations, while generally distinctive, remain sketchy, though there is an eye-catching performance from Donal Gallery as the mercurial aristocrat and artist Kenneth Pyper. Yet even the foregrounded love affair between Pyper and Ryan Donaldson’s solemn blacksmith David Craig feels sadly stiff and lacking in passion.

 

The action does come briefly to life in the play’s final chapter as the group re-enacts the Battle of the Boyne before going over the top. This short scene of boys playing at soldiers achieves a poignancy otherwise lacking in a disappointingly stilted production.

 

Box office: 0141 429 0022, to June 6 and touring the UK and Ireland to October 8. Headlong.co.uk

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