Mary Woodward Review

549 Scots of the Spanish Civil War, Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, Review

**** (4 stars)

“excellent piece, presented by an energetic and committed cast”

Four lads are making the most of open mic night in the Labour club in Prestonpans: they are enjoying themselves, and we are encouraged to join in, nearly raising the roof with 500 Miles.

There aren’t many other people around and the barmaid, Ellen, is clearly keen for the boys to shut up and go home.  She’s a feisty wee thing who’s obviously in control – but she relents and says “well, one last tune then”, and they launch into the raucous Ballad of Last night before bickering about their different political opinions which range from in Truss we trust to the system’s broken, it’s time for something completely different.

Suddenly a grey-haired man is in their midst: the lads are confused and afraid and Ellen is upset as he says we are volunteers; we didn’t fight for medals, we fought for our beliefs.  The lights go out and when they come back the man has disappeared but there’s a big old suitcase standing where he was.   Ellen opens it, and we are transported back to 1936, when a new Tory government was in power and people were starving, and Fascism was rearing its ugly head in Europe.

We follow four miners from the Pans – George Watters, Bill Dickson, Jimmy Kempton and George Gilmour – who leave the pits and go to Spain to join the International Brigade and fight in the Spanish Civil War.  It’s not a pretty tale of grand heroics: it’s messy, unpleasant, brutal, and terrifying.  And the men aren’t all upheld by the righteousness of their cause.  Yes, George Watters is moved to go because someone has to try to stop the Fascists: he refuses to let history repeat itself.  Two of the men are carried along by the courage of George’s convictions, but the fourth decides to go simply to try to make some money to support his family. 

There’s no shying away from the horrors of the war, but there’s room for a lot of humour, not all of it black, and some fabulous songs – particularly the moving canon that the men sing as, headlamps alight, they emerge from the smoky darkness of the pit and look forward to the warmth and light of Spain.  It’s made clear that the members of the International Brigade had many different ideologies but were united in what they were fighting for.  It’s also made clear just how many men died fighting, and how some were scared and tried to run away, only to be captured and sent home as prisoners of war.

There’s a rousing speech as the last Scots leave for home, but it’s hard to go along with its rhetoric – was this fight folly, or was it a necessary response to the rise of tyranny and the oppression of the weak?  The parallels are clear with the current political climate, and we are asked is it better to do the little I can, or to stand back and watch the world disintegrate?  One of the young men of ‘today’ had clearly worked out where his path lay: he comes into the club sporting a large red rosette – it’s election night and he’s standing as the Labour candidate, saying “I’m just trying to do my bit”.

It’s an excellent piece, presented by an energetic and committed cast – Martin Donaghy, Robbie Gordon, Rebekah Lumsden, Billy Mack, Cristian Ortega and Dylan Wood.  The music is both very good and very effective, the staging highly inventive, and the lighting brilliant.  549 Scots was created with the help of the people in Prestonpans: they were eager to share the memories their families had passed down to them, from which this extremely vivid and challenging play was written.  At its end, the audience in Musselburgh rose to their feet to applaud both the cast and the story they presented.

So, my friends: what would you do?  What will you do?

549 Scots of the Spanish Civil War, Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, Run Ended by Scottish Tour continues until 5th for info go to: 549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War — Wonder Fools

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