The 549 of the title is the number of Scots who took part in the Spanish Civil War, fighting a losing battle in the name of democracy (and, in some cases, money) against fascism, which was encroaching its way into Spain with Franco in much the same way it was everywhere else with Hitler, Mussolini, Mosley, Petain, etc.
The parallels to modern nationalism are difficult to miss (particularly with our own modern European war for which many non-natives have volunteered), and the show goes into them further still with a framing device set in the modern day. We then travel back in time to the true story of the four men from Prestonpans who went to Spain to fight, George Watters, Bill Dickson, Jimmy Kempton and George Gilmour.
This is clearly a personal story. The team have spent eight years developing it, from co-writer and actor Robbie Gordon finding out about the story from his grandfather to the finished show. In between, aside from the usual rehearsal and prep time, this overlooked story also had to be pieced together, not only from history books and archives but also through investigative work, which included looking up and interviewing every person with a relevant last name the production could find in the phone book. Even the sets by Pretty Sonic painstakingly recreate details of Prestonpans and Jarama.
The passion is reflected in the performances, which are uniformly excellent. The cast (Martin Donaghy, Robbie Gordon, Rebekah Lumsden, Billy Mack, Cristian Ortega and Dylan Wood) embody their different characters with energy and charm, winning the audience over from their introductory drunk singalong (in which they are also playing instruments) through to the bitter end, with several cinematically realised scenes heartbreakingly brought to life along the way.
Passion is a two-edged sword though, and while the production’s is communicated well to its audience, the writers, the story and the audience clearly still had different thresholds of interest. A substantial number of the audience getting up during the penultimate scene transition clearly showed they felt the story ended before the show. And when one considers the choice to give over twenty minutes of a true story over to a fictional framing device, including giving all the made-up present-day secondary characters arcs, it’s easy to see why.
It’s an interesting story, an overlooked one both on the personal side, but also in the big picture, as I’m sure many people know little about the Spanish Civil War or their local community’s part in it. This might be enough to make it worth seeing on its own, outside of the talented cast and crew, and all the work they have put in bringing it all back to life.
Reviewer: Oliver Giggins:
Reviewed: 14th October 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★