Review: First-rate cast shines in PICT Classic Theatre’s ‘Sons of Ulster’

by Alice T. Carter, Trib Total Media
Martin Giles (Old Kenneth Pyper). Photo by Jasmine Goldband, Trib Total Media

Martin Giles (Old Kenneth Pyper). Photo by Jasmine Goldband, Trib Total Media

For most who see Pict Classic Theatre’s “Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching to the Somme” without a solid knowledge of Irish history, Frank McGuiness’ drama may seem nothing more than an homage to national patriotism.

But those who arrive early enough to read dramaturge Tyler Crumrine’s program notes may have a deeper understanding of what the eight soldiers mean when they talk about enlisting to fight for their country.

Yes, they marched to war to defeat the Germans in some of the most horrific battles of World War I. More than a third of the 36th Ulster Division’s 15,000 men died in the first two days of the Battle of the Somme. But their sacrifices were not just to defeat the Germans. They also hoped their efforts would forestall home rule and keep a Protestant Ireland as part of the British Empire.

With or without that background, it may resonate differently for Pittsburghers than it did when it debuted at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1985.

But McGuiness’ drama is still likely to spark reactions to the bravery of all men (and now women) who volunteer to go to war, the leaders who allow or encourage the wars to happen, the inevitable loss of life and the often questionable reasons and results of defeating the enemy.

McGuiness bookends his play with fiercely bitter monologues by old Kenneth Pyper, one of the surviving sons of Ulster, played with passion and anger by the dependably vibrant Martin Giles. Now an old man, he recalls the ideals and ambitions of the soldiers along with the waste and loss they experienced on the battlefields of France.

The rest of the play is contained in three scenes in which the newly enlisted men first meet in their barracks, bonding experiences that occur while they are back home in Ireland after early days of the war and their final hours before they march into a battle that many will not survive.

For all its passion and emotion, it’s a surprisingly talky play that keeps the messiness and horror of war and battlefield action at arm’s length. The biggest observed skirmishes are some getting-to-know-you fisticuffs in the barracks and a comedic simulation of the Battle of the Boyne as they await the call to fight.

Penetrating the actors’ thick Irish accents requires constant effort and attention to keep abreast of what’s unfolding in some scenes.

With a running time of 2 hours 30 minutes including the 15-minute intermission, it seems to take a long time to tell a simple story about why and how people summon the courage to go to war and develop the loyalty to support each other.

However, the opening-night audience gave the production an almost unanimous standing ovation.

While my admiration was far more reserved, the heart of the show was its first-rate cast.

Raife Baker plays young Kenneth Pyper with a welcome Monty Pythonesque quirkiness. Also creating distinct, interesting characters are Justin R.G. Holcomb, Jason McCune, Ciaran Byrne, Byron Anthony, Dylan Marquis Meyers, Jonathan Visser and Tony Bingham.

Director Matt Tomey’s seamless pacing kept the story marching forward to its inevitable conclusion. Johnmichael Bohach’s set design, Joan Markert’s costumes and Cindy Limauro’s lighting created a theatrical setting and a sense of place and time.

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or

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