‘Union’ (Lyceum: 20 March – 12 April’14)

Josh Whitelaw as Allan Ramsay in Tim Barrow's Union. Photo by Tim Morozzo

Josh Whitelaw as Allan Ramsay.   Photo by Tim Morozzo

“A valiant shagging of historical event and character”

Editorial Rating: Unrated

England and Scotland have been at it for a good while.

Once upon a time there was some rough wooing. Then, once upon a time – again – there was the Union of the Crowns, which sounds more consensual, and then, once upon a … etc., there was the Act of Union, which obviously came straight out of the The Joy of Sex and now – just reported today – we have a time of conscious uncoupling.

Fancy a flutter on the outcome? Tim Barrow wagers you will. His new play, Union, is a valiant shagging of historical event and character that is really, really, not into contraception. Probity is not on top either. See, on the common stage in gilded London, the seventeen pregnancies of Queen Anne. That’s Anne the last of the slimy Stuarts, as we’re in the realm of Horrible Histories; and meanwhile in the vennels of Edinburgh there is the whoring of Grace and Favour.

Scotland is up for sale: 20 old K should do it, not least because in 1707 one English pound was equal to twelve Scottish. ‘What cares our land for coin?’ is the noble poet’s cry. Actually, pal (only John Dalrymple, Earl of Stair, is no friend to Allan Ramsay, makar) there are those who care a lot. And so on 16 January 1707 the treaty of Union is passed by Scotland’s Parliament by forty- one votes, 110 to 69.

The headcount in the script is 10. Ten actors do it all: only Josh Whitelaw (Allan Ramsay), Sally Reid (Grace) and Irene Allan (Queen Anne) do not have other parts. That works well and the scenes play out within eye-catching projected sets that turn and turnabout: Edinburgh is Celtic chords, rain, tankards, cards, and clustered wigs; the Queen’s showy rooms in Kensington Palace are just the place to take exotic teas and to play catch-the-crown.

I thought the safety curtain was the huge Union flag, which has a certain metaphorical fit to it. No fire risk, we’re ‘Better Together’ and all that; but this is one production, I put it out again, that does not want to stay protected. Think of the Darien scheme and go for broke.

And, despite much concerted entertainment, Union does break in two. Allan’s love for Grace and for Scotland is too soft to hold when all about them is political and [sorry] priapic disorder. Liam Brennan is a riot as The Duke of Queensberry and as a mincing teasalesman at court. At times Queen Anne’s part turns Irene Allan into Queenie from Blackadder. Andrew Vincent as Marlborough has a comic swagger that batters belief. By contrast Tony Cownie’s performance as Stair and Walpole is too good, too convincing, not to place him in Congreve’s The Way of the World. The line-up of Scottish nobles, pro-union ‘Yes’ on the left, outraged ‘No’ on the right, has to happen but it looks awkward and is – literally – staged. When Allan sets his verses free on the water you stay as unconvinced as Grace is of the power of scribbling.

To return. Now, are you sitting comfortably? Once upon a time the Duke of Marlborough drew his pistols at table and blew his daughter’s hamster apart. In a way that is how I feel about Union. Its remains are in your lap rather than in your head. More gross than shocking. As ballsy as Scotland’s Future? Has to be.

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 25 March)

Visit Union homepage here.