The Beaches of St Valery

Oran Mor, Glasgow

Neil Cooper

Four stars

Prime Ministers telling very public lies in order to save their own skin isn’t a recent phenomenon. As this revival of Stuart Hepburn’s Second World War play first seen at Oran Mor’s A Play, a Pie and a Pint lunchtime theatre initiative in 2017 makes clear, when Winston Churchill announced the so-called ‘miracle of Dunkirk’ that saw 350,000 British troops evacuated to safety, he wasn’t quite telling the whole story. In fact, he had cut a deal that saw the men of the 51st Highland Division hung out to dry as collateral damage on the frontline, where 9,000 of them were forced to surrender after being ordered to fight to their last bullet.

Hepburn illustrates this gross injustice through the eyes of Young Callum, who joins the regiment with his pals as something of a lark, with any prospect of war a far-off abstraction. The adventure he embarks on as he is thrown a lifeline in France by a young woman called Catriona following Churchill’s betrayal is both a life-changing romance and a wake-up call regarding the dishonesty of those in power.

Hepburn frames his own production with Callum telling his story through a series of letters to his younger brother, while his older self watches over him. The result is a moving and poignant study of how young lives can be turned upside down and used as cannon fodder. In Callum’s case, he at least finds salvation after suffering such heavy losses.

Hepburn’s script weaves all this together with an intelligence and lightness of touch that remains the right side of sentimental, and is gifted with a trio of lovely performances. James Rottger makes a wide-eyed Young Callum, whose getting of wisdom comes through Ashley Smith’s sparky and more street-smart Catriona. Ron Donachie brings an avuncular gravitas to illustrate the all too real human cost of a piece of history shamefully hidden by those who helped shape it.