Talking Movies

September 21, 2016

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme

The Abbey characteristically gives the bloody cul-de-sac of the Somme equal precedence with the seminal Rising in this year of centenaries, but this is a stunning revival of Frank McGuinness’ work of imaginative empathy.

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Old Pyper (Sean McGinley) is haunted. In his workshops he rails against phantoms, guilt-ridden over being the sole survivor of a band of brothers wiped out at the Somme in 1916. As he remembers the slaughter the phantoms materialise, and we flashback to their meeting for the first time after enlisting. There is Young Pyper (Donal Gallery), to all concerned instantly pegged as a ‘rare boyo’, sparring with Craig (Ryan Donaldson). There is the inseparable Moore (Chris McCurry), blind as a bat, and his more confident friend Millen (Iarla McGowan). There is the disgraced minister Roulston (Marcus Lamb), an old enemy of Pyper’s, and a Derry boy Crawford (Jonny Holden). And then there’s Belfast bashers Anderson (Andy Kellegher) and McIlwaine (Paul Kennedy). As these pairs, existing and new, bond the terrible sacrifice of the Somme campaign looms before them all.

McGuinness’ rambunctious second act, in which he introduces eight characters in uniform in a barracks setting, and yet makes them all vividly individual, is a marvel of concision and inspiration, and, after seeing The Plough & the Stars earlier this year on the same stage, perhaps just a bit reminiscent of O’Casey. Thoroughly contemporary though is the abstracted third act’s pairing of the men on their leave before the full measure of devotion is called for. Not least because while Millen forces some courage into Moore on a rickety bridge, Crawford literally beats metaphysical common sense into Roulston, and Anderson helps McIlwaine mount a late Orange march, Pyper on a remote island entices Craig into revealing that he is also a rare boyo. McGuinness’ reaching across the divide to depict Unionists is mirrored in an audience weeping for McIlwaine, who would of course beat them all senseless for being Taigs.

The emotional knockout punch of the final charge by the doomed soldiers may be the most moving theatrical moment 2016 will see.

4.5/5

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