"Black Watch" returns with new National Theatre of Scotland cast

So it returns, the production that, if the whole thing was disbanded tomorrow, would ensure the National Theatre of Scotland’s place not just in the history of Scottish theatre but theatre anywhere.

The ingredients were always promising; the timeless theme of young men going to war, the context of the second Iraq war (the theatre of war may now have moved on to Afghanistan but the heat and dust and the enemy tactics remain the same), the specifics of the notorious Camp Dogwood deployment just as it was announced the Black Watch as a regiment was to be disbanded, and the golden thread of a regimental history which touches more of Scotland than you might suppose. Indeed, fully half the all new cast have family connections with the regiment.

And there was director John Tiffany with his knack of bringing out the best in new writing reunited with Gregory Burke, whose coruscating first play, Gagarin Way, had erupted only four years previously. Burke, crucially, grew up in a service family in Fife and could speak to Black Watch soldiers in a way that other writers – not unlike the hapless one depicted in the play – simply could not.

That accounted for the authenticity of the depiction of soldiering on which every soldier remarks, be they present or former, in Scotland or anywhere else. But it does not account for the clever structuring of the play which Burke and Tiffany orchestrated, which first tells you what happens and then feints away from the climax so that when it does arrive, it is all the more shocking. Nor does it account for the pulsating energy of the production, the haunting arrangements by Davey Anderson of the traditional regimental songs, the movement, orchestrated by Steve Hoggett, that turns violence and anger into a kind of kinetic poetry.

It is all still there and the packed audience in Glasgow rose to its feet at the end, as they did at that thrilling first night in Edinburgh four years ago, so it is all clearly still working. Those of us who have seen it before will notice some tiny details have changed and the explosions and mortar rounds seemed louder than ever. I sensed a slight dilution of the original impact though that they may be no more than familiarity.

Otherwise all is in place and the new cast is shaping up well. Ian Pirie as the gruff colonel is very strong. Keith Fleming’s sergeant is as foul-mouthed as ever and he manages the transition to the all-too sensitive writer researching the play with ease.

In the crucial central role of Cammy, the soldier who decides to quit in the end, is as clearly hugely promising young actor called Jack Lowden (so young he is still at RSAMD) who seems almost too young for the wisdom he displays. But then that’s what the army does, makes men out of boys. If a roadside bomb doesn’t get them first.

Black Watch, National Theatre of Scotland at the GLasgow SECC until Oct 9, then in Aberdeen Oct 13-12 prior to Belfast, London and US Tour. Full details at www.nationaltheatrescotland.com

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