The Beaches of St Valery

Oran Mor, Glasgow

Mary Brennan

four stars

IN June 1940, even as headlines were hailing the mass evacuation of British troops from Northern France as “the miracle of Dunkirk”, the men of 51st Highland Division were still on French soil – and, as determined by Churchill, under French command. His instructions to “fight to the last bullet” owed nothing to military tactics: it was a politically-motivated attempt to keep the French onside as allies. As the German army advanced, the French surrendered. With evacuation now a forlorn hope, the 51st had no choice but to follow suit.

Various choices probably occurred to writer/director Stuart Hepburn when he started joining up the dots of history for this play. Archives hold accounts of poor command decisions and of the brutalities – often fatal – that befell the surrendered. But Hepburn is wise to the leaden nature of too many facts and figures, so instead he gives us a touchingly human drama that draws us, viscerally and emotionally, into the experiences of one young private in the Cameron Highlanders, Callum Chisholm (James Rottger).

In 1938, he and his mates join the Territorials for a lark. Come 1940, the ones who are still alive are cooped up on the beaches of St Valery, about to become POW’s. Fate, however, smiles on Callum and – in a plot twist based on a true story – he is helped to freedom by an ex-pat Fife miner and his equally brave daughter. Everything about this three-hander – with Ron Donachie as the miner, Ashley Smith his daughter and both of them deftly taking on other parts as required – is an affirmation of valour, love and courage under danger. It depicts the best of who we are, or hope we are, in the worst of times. Projections and songs provide glimpses of context in what is an outstanding production that’s acted out with integrity, humour and a lovely awareness of what these characters represent even now.

Sponsored by Heineken