Cristian Ortega

549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War



Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War isn’t exactly what you’d call subtle: in a small pub in Prestonpans, the parallels between four disgruntled millennials and their 1936 counterparts are explicitly drawn.

The 2017 quartet are somewhat disaffected, ground down by austerity and disillusioned with democracy. George (Robbie Gordon), who was famed at school for being the political one, isn’t going to bother voting in the next election. What’s the point? The others disagree, but that doesn’t mean they’re of one mind. They’re angry, polarised; either silent or shouting; held together only by proximity and a shared past.

But, during a powercut, Old George (Michael Mackenzie) appears briefly and then  vanishes, leaving behind a mysterious suitcase. Bar manager Ellen (Rebekah Lumsden) seizes the opportunity to school the boys, telling them that Old George is long dead, and that his suitcase contains mementoes of his time fighting in the Spanish Civil War.

George Watters joins the legendary International Brigade in 1936, spurred on by his deeply held belief that fascism must be thwarted, no matter what the cost. He persuades his mates and his brother-in-law too: Jock (Josh Whitelaw) is keen because he wants to spread his wings, to see the world beyond East Lothian; Bill (Cristian Ortega) is an innocent, young and easily swayed, who just wants to meet some Spanish girls; Jimmy (Nicholas Ralph) is in it for the money. Their ideologies differ, but they bond over the fight.

As Ellen tells the story, the men enact it, using whatever they can find in the bar to represent the tale. Their guns are snooker cues; their barriers bar tables. The lighting (by Benny Goodman) is unusual and most effective: there are banks of brightly coloured pink and yellow spots, almost blinding at times, denoting the present day, while an atmospheric orange gloom settles over much of the past action. It’s a quirky palette, but somehow it makes perfect sense.

The physicality of the drama is excellent, with some inventive set pieces, particularly the bike ride and the battles. The small space feels crowded by soldiers; the pace never lets up, and the characters are well drawn. This is true ensemble work, and very nicely done.

And, in a testament to the power of theatre, the simple reenactment of the tale has a profound impact on the boys, shaking them out of their torpor. I know, I said it wasn’t subtle. But this isn’t the place for subtlety. Maybe, in these troubling times, as the far right rears its head again, we all need to wake up and realise what’s worth fighting for.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield




It’s cold and it’s raining and we’re in two minds about going out tonight. We’re booked in for an Unlimited screening of a film we know nothing about and it is really miserable out there. On the other hand, we reason, what if the film turns out to be great? We’ll be mad we missed it, won’t we? So, after some deliberation, out into the raging elements we go and boy, are we glad we do!

Beats is set in 1994. The TV screens are awash with images of Tony Blair and scenes of violent civil unrest. Johnno (Cristian Ortega) lives with his mum, Alison (Laura Fraser), and his would-be stepdad, Robert (Brian Ferguson), a straight-laced police officer. Alison and Robert dream of moving away from the depressing estate in which they live to a starter home in a nicer neighbourhood. In the meantime, schoolboy Johnno has a thankless part-time job stacking shelves at the local supermarket, and spends his downtime hanging out with his best pal, Spanner (Lorn MacDonald). This does not sit well with Alison and Robert, who openly refer to Spanner as ‘scum.’ Spanner’s older brother, Fido (Neil Leiper), is a notorious drug dealer, and seems to get a kick out of bullying his younger sibling at every opportunity.

On a local radio station, D-Man (Ross Mann) keeps trumpeting an upcoming illegal rave (details to follow) and Spanner tries to persuade his friend to go along to it with him, so they can have one last fling together before Johnno heads off to his new home in the suburbs. But nicking a stash of money from Fido to enable them to finance the trip might not be their wisest move…

Beats manages to do the impossible, making me nostalgic for a music scene I have no personal experience of. Ortega and MacDonald enact a brilliant odd-couple partnership – the former all glum-faced desperation, the latter a grinning, gurning powerhouse. (We last saw MacDonald in the terrific Mouthpiece by Kieran Hurley, who also wrote this screenplay.) Brian Welsh directs with aplomb, and the stark black and white cinematography of Benjamin Kracun is an absolute joy to behold, building as it does to an extended rave sequence, where the loved-up, E-fuelled revellers dance wildly and the screen suddenly explodes into full colour. The effect is, quite simply, mesmerising.

If I have a minor niggle it’s simply that the sound levels of that pulsing, throbbing soundtrack are kept a little too polite. I keep anticipating a sudden push into full volume that never comes – but, well, I guess you can’t have everything.

Beats is a film about escape. All the characters, for their own particular reasons, are trying to outrun something that brings them down – poverty, violence, bullying, boredom… you name it. For one night, in a deserted warehouse off the M8, it can all be put aside and forgotten in a blaze of lights and music.

On our way home it’s still raining, but somehow we barely even notice it.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney