The Spanish Civil War is not an area of history with which I’m very familiar. Something about Franco, republicans and Fascists being the extent of my understanding. I certainly didn’t realise that some 2,300 British and Irish men and women rallied to the cause, rushing to fight in a conflict that would never be of any personal benefit. Over 500 of those were killed. From July 1936, the war raged between Franco’s German and Italian-backed fascists and a Republican government, notably unsupported by Britain. Despite all the odds, the republicans managed to resist the fascists until 1939, assisted greatly by an assortment of 35,000 volunteers from over 50 countries. The International Brigaders were the inspiration for this new musical, staged as a tribute to their courage with 2011 marking the 75th anniversary of their formation.
Sammy (Tommy Gill) is an eighteen year old Jew from Stepney who hates fascism and all it stands for. Mother Rebecca (Lucy Bradshaw) has brought her son up to fight for his beliefs, a course she comes to regret when he sets sights on Spain; she can’t prevent her hot-headed boy placing conviction over consideration and shipping out to fight in a war he knows little about. In company of individuals with a similar mindset, Sam discovers love and tragedy over the following two years. Pilar (Katie Bernstein) has lost both parents in the struggle and is facing the prospect of prostitution when Sammy falls for her. Rebecca meanwhile decides that she too must rally to the cause and undertakes nursing duties while searching for him. Bradshaw copes well portraying a mother pining for a son of whose fate she knows nothing.
Sam is one of a band of Brigaders who journey across Spain in the fight for freedom. Mark Meadows is strong as Northerner Jack, cynical World War One veteran and reluctant mentor to the lads, infusing self discipline and wisdom in equal measure by his actions rather than words. Jack Shalloo plays cocky George with spirit and energy. Their clever faction’s patter song is certainly a highlight.John Killoran gives a persuasive performance as Ernesto, self-proclaimed anarchist who stumbles upon Rebecca in a hospital. She is too busy to tolerate his bad-tempered demanding, a quality which he finds attractive. Predictably, romance blossoms. The somewhat unimaginatively titled ‘Ernesto’s Song’ is charmingly delivered.
K.S. Lewkowicz has compiled a decent score in this his second musical, to include rousing political war chants, together with a sprinkling of touching ballads and attractive ensemble pieces. A bouyant four-piece band, overseen by Musical Director Mark Smith, gives accompaniment to a talented and energetic cast, which includes some fine vocalists. Although sound levels were just about perfect, I do question the need to use microphones, but that is purely a personal preference.
Whether the quality of this new musical is sufficient to carry it forward is difficult to judge. Certainly, it has potential and the cast received a hearty reception at curtain call. Spanish speakers could be heard aplenty in the audience and while I couldn’t discern their precise conversation, approval was evident. Indeed, I found this production generally appealing and the committed cast engaging.
Judith Johnson’s book does not err far from the predictable war-torn romances between both couples and this is a flaw, allowing a lack of true grit to the storyline. The interval proved to be a watershed, a beefy second act provided more of the bad language and despair one expects from a war being fought by fatigued Brigaders subsisting on beans and fighting with amunition ill-suiting their ageing weapons. The piece climaxes with a tearfully moving and sincere final scene, superbly played by Lucy Bradshaw. La Pasionaria’s Farewell is chillingly sung by the very able Laura Tebbutt to close the show.
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By Gareth Richardson - @BargainTheatre
Nov 24th - Dec 23rd 2011
Arcola Theatre, London, E8.
TEN10 - First ten performances £10
Tuesdays - Pay What You Can