Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme
Hampstead Theatre has been good to Frank McGuinness. It's that corner of a foreign field where his Irish dramas have flourished regularly since the mid-eighties - indeed since this very play received its British premiere under Michael Attenborough's direction. The relevance of John Dove's strongly cast revival seems subtly different this time round: the play's themes appear less parochial and more universal now that the Irish troubles have made way for a return to more traditional forms of military combat in lands more distant than either Ulster or France.
McGuinness' economical, four-scene structure introduces us to eight Protestant soldiers as they enlist to fight for King and Country in the Great War. With deft technical skill he explores the complex relationships that evolve between them following recruitment, during home leave and finally at the build-up to the ‘Big Push' which, as we know from the outset, will leave all but one of them dead.
The survivor, Kenneth Pyper, appears as an old man (James Hayes) in a histrionic opening monologue that spells out the parallels and ironies which prompted McGuinness to write this play in the first place. He shakes his fist at the God who laid waste to late-20th Century Ulster as efficiently as he did the battlefields of the Great War. Matters improve when Pyper's younger self, in Richard Dormer's dynamic performance, calls the tune among his fellow soldiers. He is the conduit and the catalyst for their various affinities and conflicts, and Dormer gives a performance of discomfiting intensity.
Eugene O'Hare and Billy Carter as his most troubled comrades define their roles with nervy volatility, and the entire cast meets the challenge of the play's mercurial closing scene. That follows a disappointingly contrived sequence of close-up writing set back home in the Irish hills, and it is also frustrating that the play ducks any kind of catharsis as the soldiers finally go over the top. We end on an ironic hoorah that keeps us at arm's length from the horrors of war.
John Dove marshals his forces with military precision. His eight angry men love, hate and compete without a shred of monotony as the director seizes every opportunity for light and shade. The play has pace and flow but, inevitably, no suspense beyond the irony of watching doomed youth travel hopefully. Along the way we learn a great deal about fear, comradeship, masculinity and death - not a bad haul, but overall the play is too flawed to be the classic it might have been.