Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme

Posted on: 01 July 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves

Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme has been revived in a fine new production at the Hampstead Theatre where it first received its British premiere in 1986.

The First World War with its loss of a generation has always provided a potent symbol for the futility of war and how easily expendable the common man is and this has been conveyed most memorably in the theatre in such classics as Journey’s End, The Silver Tassie and the music-hall satire Oh! What a Lovely War!

Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme which established the reputation of Irish playwright Frank McGuinness  may not be in the same league as the above but is still an impressive piece of work and is now revived in a fine new production directed by John Dove at the Hampstead Theatre where it first received its British premiere in 1986.

Eight men volunteer to serve in the 36th Ulster Division at the beginning of the First World War.  Whilst their bonds of friendship grow amid the horror and despair of the trenches, the march towards their seemingly inevitable sacrifice continues apace.  Ahead of them lies the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1st July 1916-also the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne 1690, one of the most infamous battles in British and Irish history.  With heavy casualties from the Ulster Division, the Somme, like the Boyne, holds a significant place in the history of the Irish Protestant movement.

This could be described as a memory play starting and ending with the aged Pyper-the only survivor of the regiment-remembering his dead comrades back into action (the first 20 minutes of the play are the most brilliant).  The setting of the play in the present of the mid 1980’s when it was written, allows for contemporary resonances to the ‘Troubles ‘ of Northern Ireland, then at its height, a time when, as Pyper remarks, ‘men my age may have been burned in their beds’.  A  doubleness pervades the Ulstermen’s confrontation with the enemy, it is even more fundamental to the play’s ultimate concern, their encounters with themselves.

This production has its longeurs but emerges as a funny and sad exploration of the issue of dual allegiances in the lives and deaths of eight Protestant sons of Ulster-ironically McGuinness is a Catholic and nationalist.

Under John Dove’s assured direction there is a host of excellent performances from Eugene O’Hare, John Hollingworth, Mark Holgate, Billy Carter, Michael Legge, Owen Sharpe and Chris Garner.  Best of all though is James Hayes and Richard Dormer as the old and young Pyper respectively.

By Laurence Green

Where: Hampstead Theatre

When: Plays until 18th July

Box Office: 020 7722 9301

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