Review: 549 – Scots of the Spanish Civil War, Prestonpans Town Hall

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First published in The Times, Tuesday May 28 2019

Three Stars

This dynamic new play from Wonder Fools is part drama, part history lesson. Jack Nurse and Robbie Gordon’s script was inspired by the true story of four young miners from Prestonpans in East Lothian who fought in the Spanish Civil War. The company’s UK tour includes an interactive exhibition featuring stories of the Scottish volunteers who served as part of the International Brigades.

While steeped in the writers’ historical research, the play is also absorbingly human. The characters, while earnest, do not feel like mouthpieces. The action is set in 1936 and bookended by scenes in a pub in austerity-hit Prestonpans on the eve of the 2017 general election. Among the young drinkers, Nicholas Ralph’s cocksure Jimmy is the only one supporting the Tories (there is an irony to his parroting Theresa May’s “strong and stable” line in the week that her premiership collapsed). Otherwise, apathy abounds. Even idealistic George (Gordon) can barely be bothered to drag himself to vote.

Robbie Gordon and Nicholas Ralph by Mihaela Bodlovic

Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic

The contrast between today’s political lethargy and the ideological passion of yesteryear is spotlighted, a little clumsily, via the ghostly appearance of George Watters (Michael Mackenzie), a local firebrand and veteran of the Battle of Jarama. The story of George and his comrades’ journey from “the Pans” to central Spain is told in Nurse’s lively production through a well-judged assortment of monologues, dramatic scenes, choreography and songs.

 

While the play doesn’t entirely avoid sentimentality, Nurse and Gordon’s script is nuanced about its characters’ motivations and honest about the political naivety that can drive young people to sign up for a cause they barely understand. While Cristian Ortega’s innocent Bill Dickson heads into battle like a lamb to the slaughter, Jock (Josh Whitelaw) quickly becomes inured to the violence. The show’s most potent scene depicts both George and Ralph’s grasping Jimmy Kempton as prisoners, the first a captive of the fascists, the other incarcerated by his own side.

Nicholas Ralph, Josh Whitelaw, Robbie Gordon and Cristian Ortega by Mihaela Bodlovic

Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic

Though the production is spare, the shifts in timeframe and location are effectively rendered via Benny Goodman’s lighting designs and the energetic performances from the five-strong ensemble, which also includes Rebekah Lumsden in a variety of roles, with Gordon turning in a strong, appealing linchpin performance as George.

 

Touring to June 23. Wonderfools.org

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