Review: 549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War at New Diorama

It is an era marked by crisis. Bloody conflict, economic collapse, and the rise of fascism at home and abroad. Governments break down, treaties are torn up, and a new world order threatens violence across Europe. The year is 1936, but it could easily be now.

549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War tells the story of the Scottish volunteers who fought fascism with the International Brigades. Split between 2017 and 1936, the play begins with a group of Scottish lads who, with the promise of free beer, are told how young men like themselves once went to fight for freedom. Through storytelling, memory, music and choreography, the play connects the present to the past, showing how the volunteers’ example has relevance for today.

Nicholas Ralph, Josh Whitelaw, Robbie Gordon and Cristian Ortega in 549. Photo courtesy of Mihaela Bodlovic (2019).

Nicholas Ralph, Josh Whitelaw, Robbie Gordon and Cristian Ortega in 549. Photo courtesy of Mihaela Bodlovic (2019).

Political theatre, particularly when it concerns historical events, can be divisive. Too much information and the play can become a lecture – too little, the play can become alienating to those unfamiliar with the history. 549 avoids these problems by being as informative as it is engaging, honouring the sacrifice of the volunteers without glorifying the brutality of war, nor the complex motivations that led these young men to fight.

Josh Whitelaw in 549. Photo courtesy of Mihaela Bodlovic (2019).

Josh Whitelaw in 549. Photo courtesy of Mihaela Bodlovic (2019).

On a performance level, there is not much to fault. From Robbie Gordon’s idealistic but naïve George, Nicholas Ralph’s crude and greedy Jimmy, Christian Ortega’s sweet but nebbish Bill Dickson, to Josh Whitelaw’s intemperate Jock, the young men are all uniquely drawn and brilliantly, convincingly performed. Rebekah Lumsden is also worthy of note, with a charmingly no-nonsense bartender who also happens to deliver some of the show’s most powerful moments.

The production is wonderfully considered and nimbly executed. Jack Nurse’s direction is imaginative, cutting between timeframes in a way that is both engaging and coherent. Catherine McLauchlan’s design is both beautiful and immersive, featuring evocative lighting from Benny Goodman and a moving yet understated score by VanIves.

Rebekah Lumsden in 549. Photo courtesy of Mihaela Bodlovic (2019).

Rebekah Lumsden in 549. Photo courtesy of Mihaela Bodlovic (2019).

One of the most striking aspects of 549 is the sense of loss that can be felt in throughout. The play is about a great many things, from fighting for one’s ideals to international solidarity against oppression, but it is also a story of sacrifice, sorrow, and tragedy. Many people died fighting for the Brigades, and they were unsuccessful in stopping Franco, nor indeed the greater forces of fascism which would soon engulf Europe in blood and horror. The play reminds us that, in fighting for what is right, there is always a cost.

549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War is a perfect example of theatre that can inform and inspire. As we face the threat of fascism, in Britain and overseas, we must learn from history, and have the courage to fight again. The war may have been lost, but the fight continues. Viva la Brigada.  

Review: A Hundred Words for Snow at Trafalgar Studios

Journeys of exploration are revered in British culture. From Charles Darwin’s Beagle voyage to Ernest Shackleton’s polar expedition, stories of pioneering men are widely celebrated. I say men, because these are the stories we largely hear about – despite plenty of examples otherwise. In Britain, the heroic journey has usually been understood as white, colonial and, well, male.

Gemma Barnett as Rory in A Hundred Words for Snow. Photo courtesy of Nick Rutter (2019).

Gemma Barnett as Rory in A Hundred Words for Snow. Photo courtesy of Nick Rutter (2019).

A Hundred Words for Snow presents a different vision. The play details a young girl’s journey to fulfil her father’s dreams of visiting the North Pole, running away from home with his ashes, a backpack, and her mother’s credit card. Effortlessly funny and profoundly moving, A Hundred Words for Snow is not so much about polar expedition as it is about the girl’s own self-discovery, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

A Hundred Words for Snow has one of those scripts that is almost annoying in how good it is. In Rory, Tatty Hennessy has created a character who is smart, courageous, and while a little understandably naïve, endearing in her determination, and charming in her refreshingly blunt humour. Writing children is no easy feat, but Tatty pulls off something special – capturing a child’s enthusiasm for the world as well as the all-too-real anxieties of growing up and grieving what is lost, while gaining much more in the bargain.   

Gemma Barnett as Rory in A Hundred Words for Snow. Photo courtesy of Nick Rutter (2019).

Gemma Barnett as Rory in A Hundred Words for Snow. Photo courtesy of Nick Rutter (2019).

Gemma Barnett is (if you’ll forgive the cliché) a revelation. A good script is nothing without a good actor to bring it home, and A Hundred Words for Snow is blessed with a sublime one. I was impressed not only with her comic timing but her perfectly observed and nuanced performance of a girl coming to terms with loss and her own burgeoning womanhood. This powerhouse performance does not come from nowhere, and director Lucy Jane Atkinson deserves credit for getting the best out of Barnett which, as it turns out, is an awful lot.

A Hundred Words for Snow is as near-perfect a show as they come. My only regret was its short running-time, as I could have easily spent another hour in Rory’s company learning about arctic explorers and their darkly hilarious escapades, or the writings of Amundsen, or the five different North Poles. Whether or nor the Inuits have a hundred words for snow, I am running out of words to tell you how brilliant this show is. Just go see it.

A Hundred Words for Snow is showing at Trafalgar Studios until Saturday 30 March. Tickets are available from the website.