meta name="Key Words" content= "arts and entertainment in London at at "> CurtainUp

The Internet Theater Magazine of Reviews, Features, Annotated Listings








Etcetera and
Short Term Listings


NYC Restaurants


New Jersey







Free Updates
Writing for Us
A CurtainUp London London Review
Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme

A war of the elect upon the damned.— Kenneth Pyper
Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme
Billy Carter as Christopher Roulston
(Photo: Robert Day)
It was in 1986 that Hampstead Theatre premiered in the UK Frank McGuinness' First World War play Observe The Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme and, as a part of Hampstead's 50th anniversary celebrations, it is revived in the new building. John Dove directs a strong cast of nine men with James Hayes playing Kenneth Pyper as an old man looking back on Richard Dormer as his younger self.

It is of course a play about male bonding and the extremity of religious views in Northern Ireland and all the more remarkable for being written by McGuinness who hails from the Irish Republic. The play starts with the regretful and embittered old man looking back. Kenneth Pyper is one of McGuinness' great creations. He is a misfit, an oddball. As an old man he sees the ghosts of his fallen comrades, the seven who didn't survive in a striking monologue of Pyper warring against the world. He is joined by three men in khaki greatcoats, silent and impassively looking on.

As Richard Dormer takes on the role, the younger, eccentric Pyper with his affluent and privileged background meets David Craig (Eugene O'Hare) and manages to find common ground. They are both joining the army although the enemy seems to be more the Fenians, the Irish nationalists, than the Hun. They are joined by Christopher Roulston, (an impressive Billy Carter) who is a preacher as uptight as his hair parted and slicked onto his head, with horn rimmed glasses and a stiff collar and tie. Roulston is mocked by Pyper who knows him from school. Michael Legge plays Martin Crawford, the wide eyed youngster whom Roulston takes under his wing.

It is a showcase role for Dormer as the younger Pyper as he starts his part of the play as a know it all, an unpleasantly mocking character who's more at home in a lunatic asylum than in the army—someone to whom only an insane person would give a rifle. But he shows bravery when he tackles the Protestant bullies head on when they threaten Crawford, whom they suspect to be a Catholic. By the end of the war action in the play, Pyper has shown his ability to be a member of a group and the scene when they all, almost ceremonially, place each other's Orange sashes over their soldier's uniforms is a touching statement of acceptance of the misfit, Pyper. He has earned his place in the hearts of the men and of the audience. Also admirable is the sincerity of Billy Carter's Christopher Roulston who questions his faith and finds humanity with Martin Crawford.

Michael Taylor's design and costumes are authentic as the men bandage their trouser legs with khaki bandages and the lighting helps create the atmosphere of the trenches beneath the barbed wire and iron stakes at ground level. The Northern Irish accents are perfect too as many of the actors are themselves Ulstermen.

Wars may be caused by conflict and hate but ironically fighting seems to bring the men together. Act Two of McGuinness' play is a lyrical series of snapshots of home leave where the men meet a comrade in a civilian setting. Back in the trenches, the play recreates the 1690 Battle of the Boyne. The victory of William of Orange, later William III, over James II is acted out astride human horses but has an unexpected result as the Catholic monarch triumphs, perhaps an ill omen of the battle to come. The July 1st 1916 Battle of the Somme where so many Ulstermen died is the exact anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, two hundred and twenty six years earlier.

Mc Guinness' play strikes me as less about the First World War than the men of Ulster. There are no casualties to trench foot, or shell shock or gas, none who want to run away, just men doing their best in an impossible situation with dreadful human carnage the result.
For the review by Elyse Sommer in New York and for more plot details go here Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme .

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme
Written by Frank McGuinness
Directed by John Dove

Starring: James Hayes, Richard Dormer, Billy Carter
With: Eugene O'Hare, John Hollingworth, Mark Holgate, Michael Legge, Owen Sharpe, Chris Garner
Design: Michael Taylor
Lighting: Mick Hughes
Sound: Simon Baker
Composer: Claire van Kampen
Running time: Two hours 15 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 7722 9301
Booking to 18th July 2009
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 23rd June 2009 performance at the Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, London NW3 (Tube: Swiss Cottage)

Highlight one of the responses below and click "copy" or"CTRL+C"
  • I agree with the review of Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somm
  • I disagree with the review of Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somm
  • The review made me eager to see Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somm
Click on the address link E-mail:
Paste the highlighted text into the subject line (CTRL+ V):

Feel free to add detailed comments in the body of the email . . . also the names and emails of any friends to whom you'd like us to forward a copy of this review.

London Theatre Tickets
Lion King Tickets
Billy Elliot Tickets
Mighty Boosh Tickets
Mamma Mia Tickets
We Will Rock You Tickets
Theatre Tickets
London Theatre Walks

Peter Ackroyd's  History of London: The Biography

London Sketchbook

tales from shakespeare
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
Click image to buy.
Our Review

©Copyright 2009, Elyse Sommer.
Information from this site may not be reproduced in print or online without specific permission from