Following the Glasgow Tron’s season commemorating the 1916 Irish Easter Uprising, the arrival of Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching towards the Somme forms a counterpoint to the struggles for independence by presenting the conflict that provided an opportunity for the rebellion. Frank McGuinness’ script is sympathetic to a group often vilified or mocked on the Scottish stage, The Orange Order and provides a sometimes moving portrayal of men faced with brutal death.
Unfortunately, the characterisation is predictable: the gay couple hiding their desire, a pair of thuggish Ulstermen, a preacher battling with his faith, two rural men and a naïve youngster forced to mature through the threat of death. In the extended scene that begins the second act, they get their character development- in pairs, while the rest of the cast stand still like catalogue models. The blunt structure – from first day in barracks, through traumatised leave to the eve of the fatal advance – is made clumsier by the ensemble’s uneven performances, that strain to evoke emotional depth but render the speeches melodramatic.
Donal Gallery portrays the aristocratic drop-out Kenneth Pyper as passionate and overwrought, losing nuance in his character’s development while lending his final conversion to patriotism intensity. The emphasis on the characters’ iconic or stereotypical qualities encourages the cast to pitch their performances towards a declamatory style, working against the text’s more intimate scenes and occasionally missing the chemistry that would make the bonding between the soldiers believable.
Jeremy Herrin’s direction emphasises the script’s monologues, but it is in the conversations between the men that McGuinness captures telling details, including the jockeying for status and the gradual male-bonding. Ciaran Bagnall’s set effectively pictures the claustrophobia of barracks and trench, with dramatic lighting from Paul Keogan adding intensity. The final scene – which features preparations for battle and reveals the men’s vulnerability is poignant, yet the build up to this is hampered by the script’s verbosity.