549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War – The Brunton Theatre

Written by Jack Nurse & Robbie Gordon

Directed by Jack Nurse

Rating: 4 out of 5.

To paraphrase the right honourable MP Mhairi Black: there’s an ‘F’ word that the country is too fearful to speak. A word we need to vocalise, and a word Wonder Fools encourages audiences to use. A word which thousands died in their quest to maintain the freedom to express it, died fighting to spot it, to stop it: Fascism.

But this storytelling escapade begins, where else, but the pub. It’s a pub we’ve all been in with frequenters we all recognise. The weeman, the radge, the hedger, and depending on your pub, the Tory, and it’s the sort of night we all remember, even if we can’t hack it anymore. One of booze, banter, snipes, booze, politics, and more booze. But for barkeep Ellen, it’s a wholly different sort of evening. Last orders are in, but an unexpected guest makes an appearance – an elderly man, seemingly lost, wanders into the pub before departing into the darkness, leaving behind a suitcase.

Within that suitcase, a myriad of memories of his times in Spain in 1936, fighting to forces of fascism alognside a brigade of other Scots, and other Europeans. It’s a story of the casualties incurred along the battlefields.

In British schools, the Spanish civil war and atrocities Francisco Franco’s nationalist forces committed are all but missing in favour of the Blighty spirit and a tighter homing in on the Axis powers. But for Prestonpans, a mere fifteen-minute drive from The Brunton Theatre, the lives of four Scottish men – and indeed their families, were directly tied into, what they felt, was a duty to become involved. For some it was principle, for others it was a wage, but for all of them – the threat of Fascism to the UK was a real danger. And so, George Watters, Bill Dickson, Jimmy (Jock) Kempton and George Gilmour, among many others, took to the cause and joined the International Brigade. This is the story within the suitcase, and one the four men find familiarity.

It’s this story which the four young men and Ellen infuse with life once more, delving into the past to spotlight the present. Martin Donaghy, Cristian Ortega, Dylan Wood, Rebekah Lumsden, and writer Robbie Gordon all slip from their contemporary comfies and into the khakis and bootstraps of the International Brigade.

Each is definitive in characterisation, Gordon merging into the role of the man audiences encountered earlier, the spirit of George Watters. It’s a powerfully poingnant performance which understands the struggles both of the time, and of a survivor of war. For Ortega it’s a more comedic nature, the butt of most jokes but providing a necessary levity and touching performance to outweigh the bombastically energetic movements of Wood or Donaghy. And showing no apologies in highlighting the inexcusably violent extremes men succumbed to, Wood has a remarkably complex role in this production, taking a serious note to the performance and demonstrating flickers of aggression; nothing prepares audiences for the role Jock has within the story.

Every good theatrical production requires a ghost. The reminiscent nature of the production would suggest to audiences that Nurse and Gordon’s writing ties itself to ghouls of the past, but in reality is a spectre of a more contemporary nature. And this evening (alternating with Michael Mackenzie), Billy Mack manifests this metaphorical call to arms as the lingering will of George Watters – an assertive presence through the production, slipping in and out under Benny Goodman’s lighting of Becky Minto’s set design. This advancement in Minto’s set design from the 2019 version offers a more diverse staging, the elements of make-shift mountains and barricades constructed from the bar stools thankfully remains. A significant improvement is the four stained glass panes, based on the genuine ones found within the Prestonpans Labour Club as a memorial to the four men.

549 wraps into the conclusion, a touch sentimental, but fitting for Wonder Fools intentions as the four men return to the pub some time later. They’ve moved on with their lives but have never forgotten what they learned that evening. Nurses’ direction emphasises the journey, especially Lumsden’s Ellen, a more sublte one of appreciation and acknowledgement – but vitally one of stepping forward. Exceptionally performed by Lumsden, particulary under Sofía Kherroubi García’s musical direction and the more lyrical elements of the production, capturing a hallowed spiritual nature to the folk-esque soundtrack.

Where fascism slips silently into contemporary politics, 549 pushes to take a less-violent stance on the matter, to face it down before the course with which history resorted to arrives. Nurse and Gordon remind us that we work towards a ubiquitous goal in fighting for freedom, equality, and our European neighbours. We march to the same tune, to the same song. 

Stepping Forward

549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War is currently touring Scotland.

A full list of venues may be obtained here.

Photo Credit – Mihaela Bodlovic

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