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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Observe The Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme
Hampstead Theatre Summer 2009

A disparate group of young men come together, driven by patriotism and a common innocence, and go off to die.

The story of World War I has been told many times, never losing its essential pathos and horror, and yet in 1985 Frank McGuinness found a new way into it, by looking at the Irish volunteers whose driving passion was as much pride in their Irish Protestantism as enmity toward the Germans.

Observe The Sons of Ulster... had its English premiere at the Hampstead Theatre in 1986, and is revived as part of the theatre's own fiftieth anniversary season.

Presenting the play as the flashback memory of one old man, McGuinness announces from the start that all the other characters are going to die. But the play doesn't focus on their deaths or the horrors of battle, but rather on the process of bonding, wavering in their faith, and re-affirming their bonds and commitment that they all go through before the end.

We watch them meet for the first time, see them on leave after their first taste of battle, and then witness what we know and they sense will be their final moments.

As with some of McGuinness's other plays (the Englishman, Irishman and American in Someone Who'll Watch Over Me), there's a hint of the mechanical about the selection of characters, particularly as they pair off in the course of the play - a religious man and an atheist, an older and younger man, a pair of ardent Orangemen.

At the play's centre are Pyper, black sheep outcast of a well-off family, failed artist and self-hating cynic, and Craig, level-headed working-class salt-of-the-earth type, who improbably but believably form a special connection.

Surprisingly, the most powerful sequence is not the last, but the scenes on leave, in which several of the men go through a crisis of faith - in God, in country or in themselves - and come through with a stronger sense of who they are and what they are fighting for, which in just about every case is each other. By looking away from the war itself, McGuinness provides real and moving insights into the thinking and feeling of soldiers.

Richard Dormer invests Pyper with a manic energy that we only gradually see to be fuelled by a sense of his own worthlessness, while Eugene O'Hare provides a steady anchor as Craig. Billy Carter as the religious man and John Hollingworth and Mark Holgate as the Orangemen register strongly, while James Hayes wrestles manfully with an interminable opening monologue as the old, memory-haunted survivor.

Except for not being able to do much with that opening sequence, director John Dove brings out all the play's emotional power and subtleties of characterisation and moral vision.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Observe The Sons of Ulster - Hampstead 2009