Theatre review: Persevere — Gretna 100, Edinburgh

WE WALK past them every day without a second glance, the old buildings in a city like Edinburgh that mark out our history. This weekend, though, for the first time, I paused to look for a moment at the inscription above the door of the Drill Hall in Dalmeny Street, now the home of the Out Of The Blue grassroots arts organisation; it says “The 7th Btn The Royal Scots.”

Persevere is aptly named as those left behind by the disaster have to continue their lives. Picture: Ray Bird

Persevere — Gretna 100 - Out Of The Blue Drill Hall, Edinburgh

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During the First World War, this hall was the home of the 7th Battalion, which recruited almost exclusively from Leith, Portobello and Musselburgh; and it was to this hall that more than a hundred coffins were returned, after the horrific rail crash and fire near Gretna, on 22 May 1915, that killed 216 young soldiers of the Royal Scots on their way to war.

So it seems altogether right that this weekend of centenary commemoration in Leith should have included this fine community performance by two drama companies now based at the Drill Hall, Active Inquiry’s Flashback Drama, and the Strange Town Young Company.

Written by playwright Duncan Kidd with dramaturg Steve Small and a team of community researchers, and staged alonside a poignant and beautiful small exhibition co-ordinated by artist Jan Bee Brown, Persevere is named for the motto of Leith itself, and is a complex 80-minute promenade show in five strands, telling the stories of five people – a wife, a sister, a mother, a pacifist teacher and a recruiting sergeant – left behind by the disaster.

The narrative structure is simple but inspired; each strand has three acts, one set before the soldiers’ departure, one on the day of the crash, and one at the funerals.

And although each audience member only has time to see nine of the 15 scenes, it’s impossible not to gather – from the powerful main-hall sequences that link the acts – what has been happening across all five stories; and difficult not to be moved and shaken by the profound sense of place, time and continuity conjured up by this fine 24-strong community company.

In Gavin Crichton’s production, the use of music and simple tableau images is superb, marking the changes of scene with a sudden freeze, a haunting sung melody. And when the cast finally gather in the funeral singing of the 23rd Psalm, time seems to melt away; as Leith faces look up in search of answers and consolation, and find only the voice of earthly power, urging yet more sacrifice, more belligerence, and more war.

Seen on 22 May

Further perfomances of Persevere on 20 June, and 12-13 August.