Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme

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Frank McGuinness’s 1985 World War I play looks outdated.

Image of Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme

@ Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, until Sat 4 June 2016

The blurred line between war and politics predates pretty much every “it’s really, really old” cliché I can think of. Frank McGuinness’ 1985 play set in and around the trenches of World War I tells of eight sash-wearing Ulstermen who not only have to negotiate the politics of war on foreign soil, but also the politics of the war back at home. Unfortunately, though occasionally moving, the play now looks a little dated, both in terms of post-peace-process politics and in its clunky theatrical structure.

A lot of character boxes are neatly ticked: we have young men and old, a gay couple hiding their sexuality, a priest struggling with his faith, a few country bumpkins and a few hardened shipyard workers from Belfast. There’s even one who’s a bit (just a little bit) Catholic. There are some fine performances here, but occasionally the tone misses the mark; Donal Gallery’s young Pyper is every inch the upper-class eccentric marooned amongst working-class men, but this outlandish behaviour comes at the expense of creating a rounded, likeable character. Perhaps it is the stereotyped characters that push the cast towards overwrought fervency. From the first meetings, through a period of leave and finally to the trenches, the actual structure of the script doesn’t leave Jeremy Herrin’s production a lot of space to breathe.

Though there are several lengthy monologues, it is in the throwaway conversations where the camaraderie between the men is allowed room to develop. Ciaran Bagnall’s corrugated iron set is dynamic, and appropriately captures the ramshackle transience of the trenches. It is in the final scenes as the men prepare to go over the top into battle where this production is at its most poignant, but even here it is difficult to feel truly connected to the piece, perhaps as a result of the mechanical script.