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Observe The Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars

When the eight squaddies fighting for king and country swap Protestant sashes before going into battle towards the end of Frank McGuinness' 1985 play, revived here by Jeremy Herrin, it resemblance a victorious football team swapping shirts with their noble opponents. Such an image speaks volumes about McGuinness' mighty meditation on maleness in all its troubled forms. By this stage the World War One volunteers have moved from act one's peacockish barrack room sparring to become a unit who would die for each other, with everything that really matters between them left painfully unsaid.

These men too are the ghosts conjured up by old Kenneth Pyper, the regiment's sole survivor of its final battle, who wakes as if from a nightmare at the start of the play and ushers his former comrades to would-be triumph at its end. Inbetween, Pyper's effete aesthete holds court to a role-call of Belfast tough guys, failed preachers and others caught in the crossfire and desperate for something to believe in, if only each other. For young Pyper, played with a mix of foppish charm and vulnerability by Donal Gallery, that belief comes in the form of Ryan Donaldson's David Craig.

Their fellow cannon fodder too cling to each other for comfort in this slow-burning collaboration between the Citizens, Dublin's Abbey Theatre, Headlong and Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse.

Peppered with drum-beats throughout and set against the stunning scarlet skies of lighting designer Paul Keogan, Herrin's production has taken a genuinely brave piece of writing and made something that is both elegiac and heroic in every way.

The Herald, May 27th 2016

ends

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