549 Scots of the Spanish Civil War

September 29, 2022 | By More

★★★★☆   Rousing

Brunton Theatre: Fri 23/ Sat 24 Sept 2022 & tour
Review by Thom Dibdin

Wonder Fools theatre company return to its 2019 hit, 549 Scots of the Spanish Civil War, in a re-written, updated and expanded version which hits its mark with much greater accuracy.

Seen at the Brunton, where some of the audience were possibly related to the people recalled in the events, the show follows four of the 549 young Scotts who took off to Spain in 1936, to enlist in the International Brigade and fight against Franco and the rising tide of fascism.

Dylan Wood, Rebekah Lumsden, Martin Donaghy, Robbie Gordon and Cristian Ortega – credit Mihaela Bodlovic

Set now – the early Autumn of 2022 – and in 1936, Robbie Gordon and Jack Nurse’s script is deeply embedded in the Prestonpans community, but manages to speak volumes to a wider audience.

Framing the history is the story of a quartet of lads hanging out at an open mike night in an East Lothian pub. It’s a chance for the company to kick the show off as the audience are taking their seats, adding a bit banter and some songs in the best tradition of Scottish plays with music.

In those pre-show minutes and opening scenes, Martin Donaghy, Robbie Gordon, Christian Ortega and Dylan Wood do well to create strong and believable characters; pals since school who echo the characters they will play in the scenes set in 1936.

strong performances

Moving in and out of their conversation, Rebekah Lumsden clearly rules over them as Ellen the bar manager. In a production with strong performances all round, Lumsden is the glue which holds it all together. Creating an array of extras with an easy command of her task.

Connection between now and then comes from the ghost of George Watters, played with considerable command by Billy Mack (Michael Mackenzie will replace him on the rural elements of the tour).

Billy Mack. Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic

It’s no real spoiler to say that George’s ghost has been tormenting Ellen, appearing after closing time with a suitcase full of memorabilia from 1936. He now visits the lads who mistake him for just some lost old body, not the ghostly link to the past that he is.

It’s neatly done and with Ellen in full storytelling mode the production swings back and forth between the then and now as the four lads from the Pans, George, Bill, Jimmy and Jock, set out for Spain, one passport between them, and the pub furnishings transform into the Pyrenees, their billet in Spain and the trenches where they confront the forces of fascism.

The four’s time in Spain – it would be tempting to call them adventures, but that would be to deny Gordon and Nurse’s deliberately pragmatic and human script – are played out with strong combination of banter, movement and song as it is needed because yes, the mundane realism is peppered with both comedy and idealism. And also the understanding that folk were there for very different reasons.

considerable authority

The various elements at play here are worked in together with considerable authority under Jack Nurse’s direction. Becky Minto’s set atmospherically lit by Benny Goodman; the movement direction from Robbie Gordon; and VanIves’ compositions for the songs given life under MD Sofia Kherroubi Garcia, all help support the telling.

Robbie Gordon, Cristian Ortega, Billy Mack, Martin Donaghy and Dylan Wood. Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic

You don’t need to know that the stained glass windows which feature prominently in Becky Minto’s clever set are based on one found in the Prestonpans Labour Club, but it speaks volumes of the attention to detail here.

It is inspirational stuff and works well enough to allow Lumsden to deliver quite naturally, the historical speech given by Dolores Ibarruri, the leader of the government toppled by Franco’s forces, thanking the International Brigade for their efforts as they left. Itself a passionate call to arms.

If Gordon and Nurse had left it there, or thereabouts, all would have been fine. But a somewhat misguided coda jars a little, as it fails to acknowledge that while the forces of right are on the move again across Europe, in Scotland the binary nature of politics has changed.

But make no bones, this is a big, important and universal story which needs shouting out loud. Fascism is on the rise across Europe and even on this island of ours. This might not be a call to arms, but is certainly a call to question what we might be able to do – and a reminder of the power of solidarity.

Running time: One hour and 40 minutes (no interval)
The Brunton, Ladywell Way, Musselburgh, East Lothian EH21 6AA.
Fri 23/Sat 24 Sept 2022.
Evenings: 7.30pm.
Run ended.

The Traverse, 10 Cambridge Street, EH1 2ED. Phone booking: 0131 228 1404
Fri 14 – Sat 15 October 2022
Evenings: 7.30pm (Traverse 1).
Tickets and details: Book here.

549 Autumn tour 2022:
Thurs 29/Fri 30 Sept Perth
Perth Theatre
Book online
Sat 1 Oct Stirling
MacRobert Arts Centre
Book online
Thurs 6 – Sat 8 Oct Glasgow
Tron Theatre
Book online
Mon 10/Tue 11 Oct Inverness
Eden Court
Book online
Fri 14/Sat 15 Oct Edinburgh
Traverse
Book online
Tue 25/Wed 26 Oct Castle Douglas
Town Hall
Book online
Thurs 27 Oct Moffat
Town Hall
Book online
Fri 28 Oct Cumbernauld
Lanternhouse
Book online
Wed 2 Nov Fairlie
Town Hall
Book online
Thurs 3 Nov Cumnock
Town Hall
Book online
Fri 4/Sat 5 Nov Troon
Town Hall
Book online

ENDS

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