Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme – Abbey Theatre – Review


Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme – Abbey Theatre – Review

We meet Kenneth Pyper for the first time as an old man. He wakes from troubled sleep and talks to no one but himself. He is a sculptor and there is a piece of carved stone behind him, partially covered by a sheet. He talks of his youth and the battle of the Somme where he lost the rest of his company, young men whose lives were cut short. These men slowly join him on stage, ghostly apparitions that do not speak or interact with him. They stand and watch him, like they are waiting for him to join them. From this scene, it cuts to the first time these men met, some 40 years earlier. The play is about these eight young recruits, each with their own reasons for joining the army. They are a group of young men facing into the unknown.

Credit: Johan Persson/

Credit: Johan Persson

Observe the Sons of Ulster marching towards the Somme is one of playwright Frank McGuinness’ best known and loved plays. It was first performed in the Abbey in 1985 and won the London Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright and the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize. With this year being the centenary of the battle, it was an obvious choice for a new production.

This most unusual thing about this play is that it is written about a collection of protestants, and some of them are quite prejudiced against their ‘Fenian’ countrymen. They go into battle wearing the orange sash and one even suggests that the Germans have learned Gaelic. The complex nature of a catholic man in McGuinness writing about those prejudiced against him is unusual to say the least, especially as it was written in 1985 at the height of the troubles. The characters are not treated as stereotypical bigots, instead it is just one facet of these complex individuals.

The stage works well with a number of timber posts and floor boards disappearing into the distance. It is the use of foreshortening that creates this optical illusion, giving great depth to the stage. There are a number of simple scene changes, with sheets of corrugated metal used for the scenes set during the war, along with projections onto the back wall.

While the play is set just before the battle of the Somme, in truth it could be about any war. They are a group of men facing up to their own mortality. This production gets right to the heart of the story; the relationships between the various young men. We see the recruits alone together and the interaction within the group. While Pyper is the main character of the play, it is not his story alone. The play tries to give each of the young men equal time to tell their tale. This makes it difficult to get to know any of the characters, other than in a fleeting sense. We see facets of their personality but have no great insights into their lives. There is, however, a warmth to their portrayal and a sense of dignity. The cast bring these ghosts back to life. It allows the audience consider the sacrifice that men such as these made to allow their way of life to continue.


Ryan Donaldson – David Craig
Donal Gallery – Kenneth Pyper
Jonny Holden – Martin Crawford
Andy Kellegher – George Anderson
Paul Kennedy – Nat McIlwaine
Marcus Lamb – Christopher Roulston
Chris McCurry – William Moore
Seán McGinley – Old Kenneth Pyper
Iarla McGowan – John Millen

Stephen Warbeck – Composer
Emma Laxton – Sound Design
Paul Keogan – Lighting Design
Niamh Lunny – Costume Design
Ciaran Bagnall – Set Design
Jeremy Herrin – Director


Categories: Header, Theatre, Theatre Review

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