Union – Review

Mar 26 2014 | By More

✭✭✭✩✩  In rude health

Royal Lyceum Theatre Friday 20 Mar – Saturday 12 Apr 2014

Bawdy, hugely ambitious and almost wilfully uneven, the Lyceum’s world premiere of Union should be applauded for its intentions even if the results are not wholly successful.

Sally Reid (Grace). Photo © Tim Morozzo

Sally Reid (Grace). Photo © Tim Morozzo

Tim Barrow’s timely new play combines the factual story of how a series of political intrigues on both sides of the border – coupled with the lure of hard cash – persuaded the Scottish Parliament to vote itself out of existence, with the fictionalised life of the young poet Allan Ramsay in the fleshpots and drinking dens of Edinburgh.

This combination of events is presented through a peculiar grab-bag of techniques, with a seeming desire to avoid any kind of ersatz historical dialogue leading to a mixture of the poetic and the decidedly uncouth. When it works it really takes flight, but at times veers close to parody, with the English politicians presented as sulky, foppish toddlers, and their Scottish counterparts as participants in the rugby club dinner from hell, complete with bawdy songs and copious swearing.

Perhaps all of this cursing, boozing, whoring and poetry writing is reflective of that well-known literary concept the Caledonian Antisyzygy, encompassing the conflicting and paradoxical nature of the Scottish character. However, the insistence that so much of importance in Scottish life must have taken place in the pub is something of a cliché and, coupled with some of the dialogue, lends the air of soap opera at times.

Thankfully, most of the script is more original, and there is a definite muscular and merciless attractiveness to the first act in particular. However, the pace noticeably slackens in the second half, the last third lacks focus and overall the play is too long by at least twenty minutes.

There is too much in the way of clunky exposition and at times Barrow seems unsure whether the political machinations or the human stories behind them should take precedence. The more intimate stories seem more sincere, with Irene Allen (Queen Anne) and Sally Reid (Grace, the prostitute who is the object of Ramsay’s affections) becoming more heartfelt in the second act.

“hugely compelling and energetic, mixing comedy and menace”

It is perhaps unfortunate (although possibly historically accurate) that the female roles do not encompass as wide a variety of social strata as the male ones; the doubling and trebling of roles by the other actors gives them a chance to show off their range. This opportunity is not always taken, with some of the different characters less clearly delineated than they might be. Keith Fleming, however, proves himself to be superbly versatile and thoroughly convincing in his various roles.

Liam Brennan (Queensberry) and Tony Cownie (Stair). Photo © Tim Morozzo

Liam Brennan (Queensberry) and Tony Cownie (Stair). Photo © Tim Morozzo

There are some other noteworthy performances. Liam Brennan’s Queensberry is hugely compelling and energetic, mixing comedy and menace. Tony Cownie is similarly effective as the Earl of Stair, his seeming insipidity concealing the hidden steel of one of the most notorious figures of the age. Andrew Vincent’s Marlborough is a swaggering buffoon who is probably the best swearer of the cast – no small accolade considering the plethora of profanities.

Josh Whitelaw’s Allan Ramsay has to carry a great deal of the narrative, and he is perhaps not entirely successful, although he is sympathetic and fallible, while Irfan Meredith is suitably cynical as Daniel Defoe.

Mark Thomson’s skilful direction and Andrzej Goulding’s compelling video design manage to keep interest high throughout, while Philip Pinsky’s music and sound provide a pointed commentary to the action.

Much of the uneven nature of the production can be excused by its ambition to tell a huge and important story. Its reluctance to draw too close parallels with any modern-day events means that audiences can take whatever messages they want from the evening. After all, the Act of Union was undoubtedly unpopular, and was largely brought about through dishonesty and venality – but this is not strictly relevant to how any such Union may or may not be dissolved. A brave attempt, compelling in parts, and a partial success.

Running time 2 hours 50 mins including interval
Run ends Sat 12 April 2014
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street, Edinburgh, EH3 9AX
Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7.45 pm, Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2.30 pm

Tickets from www.lyceum.org.uk

Tim Barrow’s script is published by Playdead Press. Click above for details.

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