Theatre reviews: Bold Girls | 549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War

Michael Duke’s production of Rona Munro’s Bold Girls draws some stunning performances from a brilliant cast, writes Joyce McMillan

Bold Girls PIC: Greg Macvean
Bold Girls PIC: Greg Macvean

Bold Girls, Lanternhouse, Cumbernauld ****

549: Scots Of The Spanish Civil War, Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh ****

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With her new plays about James IV and Mary Queen of Scots set to open in Edinburgh and London, Rona Munro is one of the most talked-about Scottish playwrights of the moment; and it’s thrilling to see Cumbernauld Theatre at Lanternhouse add to the excitement with a powerful revival of her groundbreaking 1990 drama Bold Girls, perhaps the play that sealed her reputation as one of the great female and feminist writers to emerge in Britain in the 1980s.

Set in republican Belfast during the Troubles, Bold Girls explores the three-way relationship between warring mother and daughter Nora and Cassie – living together while Cassie’s husband Joe is in prison for alleged terrorist offences – and their neighbour Marie, whose much-loved husband Michael died in a horrible punishment killing a few years earlier.

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The catalyst for the drama is the appearance of a strange girl, Deirdre, who arrives at Marie’s door demanding shelter, and helping herself to clothes and money; but the tensions she unleashes among the three women have clearly been simmering for years, and speak volumes about the lives of women in an intensely patriarchal and violent society, where their menfolk – and particularly the men they love – always have the power to divide and rule.

Michael Duke’s thoughtful production could possibly use a little more pace and kinetic energy, and features some remarkably long and cumbersome scene changes. It excels, though, in drawing stunning performances from a cast brilliantly led by Pauline Goldsmith as Nora, Leigh Lothian as Cassie, and Julie Martis as Marie, with strong support from Katya Searle as lost girl Deirdre. And although the landscape of Munro’s play is memorably bleak – leaving Marie finally bereft of husband, friends, and even the consolation of happy memories – there’s something about the power of the language, and the vividness with which Munro captures the truth of these women’s lives, that lifts the heart, and strengthens resolve.

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There’s a similar refusal to offer comforting certainties, or easy reassurance, behind Wonderfools’ new touring version of their 2018 show 549: Scots Of The Spanish War, set to visit theatres across Scotland this autumn. The show certainly loses some fluidity and intimacy, in the transition from the village hall spaces where it was born to a more conventional staging; but it also gains complexity, as writers Robbie Gordon and Jack Nurse tease out the complex motivations of four young men from Prestonpans who, in 1936, leave their lives in the East Lothian coalfield for the front line of the struggle against fascism.

The play, though, is very much set in a 21st century context, as the leader of the men, George Watters, returns to haunt four present-day lads who echo their attitudes, and whose lives seem unlikely ever to find such a serious purpose. Martin Donaghy, Robbie Gordon, Cristian Ortega and Dylan Wood play the four with impressive skill and passion, alongside a superb performance from Rebekah Lumsden as their friend and barmaid Ellen, who turns out to have her own deep connection to George’s story. And the result is a show that combines fierce physical action and movement with superb accompanying songs, and continues to reintroduce communities across Scotland to a vital part of their own political history, while never trying to disguise the complexity and difficulty of the decision these men made, or the huge price paid for it, both by them, and by their families.

Bold Girls is at Lanternhouse, Cumbernauld, until 1 October. 549: Scots Of The Spanish Civil War is on tour across Scotland until 5 November, see http://www.wonderfools.org/549