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Review: Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Toward The Somme – Liverpool Playhouse

FRANK McGuinness’s play was first performed at Dublin’s Peacock Theatre in 1985 and won him the Most Promising Playwright award from the London Evening Standard – an accolade he has since richly lived up to.

This touring revival is co-produced by the Peacock’s sister the Abbey, with Headlong, Citizen’s Glasgow and Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, and coincides with the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.

This is indeed a piece very much about a group of soldiers heading toward the battlefield; about the men themselves and not the conflict that has driven them together. Eight members of the 36th Ulster Division slowly congregate in the barracks for the first time and begin to unfold their individual back-stories. The narrative is seen through the memory of Kenneth Pyper, whose older self opens with an extended monologue in which we find him haunted forever by the ghosts of his past in lifelong survivor-guilt. Slipping back to their first meeting, the work follows them as they discover each other’s fears and passions, learn to accept their differences and train to face the horror that awaits them.

This play makes an interesting bookend to The Night Watch, currently playing at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. In that 2nd World War drama, a predominantly female cast of characters discover that the pressures of conflict bring a new urgency to expressing their individuality. In Observe The Sons, an all male cast similarly discover an exaggerated need to forget the things that make them different and find some sort of camaraderie. Both plays explore aspects of characters that at once draw them together and force them apart.

Donal Gallery gives a fearless performance as young Pyper, an angry young man who’s hard to warm to with his defensive manner, but who can’t escape the affection of Enniskillen blacksmith David Craig, played by Ryan Donaldson.

McGuinness writes dialogue with tremendous power, and this is a work in which anger and reconciliation vie with each other in a simmering cocktail of emotions. The piece is slow to develop, and it’s only in the second act that one really begins to see the full extent of its genius. Jeremy Herrin directs with perhaps a little too much delicacy, but does achieve a great sense of the impending threat that looms ahead as we march toward the inevitable.

The fine cast are contained in a spare but atmospheric set from Ciaran Bagnall, on which Paul Keogan’s lighting paints some spectacular pictures.

Observe The Sons of Ulster Marching Toward the Somme runs at Liverpool Playhouse until Saturday 25th June, after which it continues touring throughout the UK and Ireland.

Review by Nigel Smith


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