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549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War review at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh – ‘vibrant storytelling’

Josh Whitelaw in 549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic
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The new show by Wonder Fools tells the story of a group of men from the former mining village of Prestonpans, a few miles east of Edinburgh, four of the 549 Scots who fought in the Spanish Civil War.

Four lads in a modern pub at closing time are visited by the ghost of old George Watters (Michael Mackenzie), who leaves his battered suitcase in the bar. It happens all the time, the landlady Ellen says, and tells them the history of George and his three pals who went to Spain in 1936 to join the International Brigade.

Although there is a certain clunkiness to the framing of the story, director Jack Nurse distinguishes between the different time periods and makes the claustrophobia of small town life feel very real.

Robbie Gordon, Nicholas Ralph, Cristian Ortega and Josh Whitelaw perfectly catch the rhythm and vernacular of East Lothian. However, it is Rebekah Lumsden, playing Ellen and a variety of other roles, who really catches the spirit of the piece.

Catherine McLauchlan’s sparse set uses pub furniture to represent the Pyrenees and the Jarama Valley. There is a sense of fervour to the early scenes. In strong physical sequences, the actors reenact the four comrades journey to Spain, and the death of one of their number in the Battle of Jarama.

Nurse stops things from getting overly sentimental as he reveals the failure of the Brigade and how the four men’s stories either ended in death or prison, but a modern revelation, showing the effect of the tale on the four pals in the pub, feels too pat.

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Vibrant telling of a chapter of Scottish social history with a strong community spirit