Review: Observe The Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme at Cambridge Arts Theatre

A ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles in a communication trench during the Battle of the Somme. T

A ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles in a communication trench during the Battle of the Somme. The date is believed to be 1 July 1916, the first day on the Somme, and the unit is possibly the 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles (25th Brigade, 8th Division). - Credit: Archant

Observe The Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme by Frank McGuinness at Cambridge Arts Theatre. Review by ANGELA SINGER.

This play, written in 1985 when the troubles in Ireland were still raging, is set in 1916 when the spring saw the Easter Rising in Dublin and the summer brought the slaughter on the Somme.

It centres on a group of eight Protestant men, Orangemen, who enlisted to fight for the King and country they felt loyal to. They would bang their drum on the Western Front as they did at home, to preserve their homeland from invasion or Popery.

The first act of the play is extremely powerful. All honour on the opening night in Cambridge to actor Gary Lilburn who stepped in to play the character of Kenneth Pyper as an old man when Sean McGinley became ill.

As the play opens, we see the eight men from different walks of life, just ordinary chaps who had signed up in good faith with no idea of the horrors they would face, the slaughter, the wantonness and the utter lack of decency or purpose that was The First World War.

They are wonderfully droll characters, the play seems full of promise.

However, the focus of the play is not the Great War. It is the prejudice back home in Ireland. What we see is how deeply embedded their hatred is for their fellow countrymen who are Catholics.

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The setting of the Great War is almost irrelevant – it’s simply what brings these disparate people together. The dialogue is less about the conflict than the divisions at home. They hardly speak about the Germans.

Yet, we only get one side of the argument: What bigots these Loyalists are. The characters, though made real by tremendous performances, are so relentlessly bigoted that they are in danger of becoming parodies.

We are barely invited to like them. Mostly, we are required to laugh at them and their narrow-mindedness. That comes between us and our compassion for them. Apart from the characters of the two pals John Millen and William Moore (played deftly by Iarla McGowan and Chris McCurry) they are not allowed to show us any depth of human warmth.

Strangely, their trials and torments don’t seem shake their faith or their bigotry.

This is memorable play but somehow unfinished. One cannot help thinking, there was more to those young men than just a narrow mind. Possibly, before they were blown to pieces, some of them they might have seen a common humanity across the faiths.