Walled City Tattoo

Derry's got talent as drummers, dancers, singers and stuntmen transport Ebrington back in time

When it comes to self-restraint, soldiers can't be trusted. That, at least, was the opinion of the Dutch military hierarchy in the 17th century, who ordered that an audible signal be sounded – either the rap of a drum or the peel of a trumpet – to remind innkeepers in the vicinity of garrisons to 'turn off the tap' ('doe den tap toe') before things got out of hand.

This quaint phrase was adopted by the authorities in that flat expanse of land, recorded in books and ledgers, and passed around Europe from tongue to tongue. Long since modified in the English to 'tattoo', the term maintains those old military connotations, and refers to exhibitions of music and/or formation displays typically performed by Armed Forces outfits.

Perhaps the most famous event on the annual calendar is the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, which takes place during the rather more anarchic and irreverent Edinburgh Festival, strangely enough, and draws thousands of purists to Edinburgh Castle for a couple of weeks every August – tattoo's are big business in bonny Scotland.

Derry~Londonderry's Ebrington Square is, therefore, a fitting choice as host venue for the Walled City Tattoo. As a disembodied, and thoroughly well-spoken, narrator (played by Gordon Fulton) reminds us during the introduction, Ebrington has a long history as a military fort, being the site from whence Jacobite forces bombarded the city across the Foyle during the Siege of Derry, and the sprawling base for the British Army this side of the Bann for the duration of the Troubles.

Today, Ebrington is Derry's outdoor venue of choice – if Bryan Adams ever returns to town, it's unlikely he will perform again at Prehen Playing Fields, as he did so memorably (I'm told) back in 2001 – linking the city to the Waterside via the stunning Peace Bridge. Ebrington has hosted a variety of events since its reopening in 2012, from Radio 1's Big Weekend to the Beach Boys more recently, and there is very much a variety atmosphere to proceedings on opening night of the 2014 Tattoo.

There are the obligatory bands, of course, under the musical direction of Noel Barr, from the Hamilton Flute Band to the Bready Ulster Scots Pipe Band, but there is a strong dance element also, featuring Irish and Highland dancers, live music from the decidedly funky Sontas Celtic group, singing from the Londonderry Musical Society, comedy from Swiss rhythmic comedy trio Starbugs, and hair-raising technical displays from motorcycle team The Imps, whose youngest member is a mere five-years-old.

The overarching theme which draws all of these disparate elements together (sometimes rather tenuously, it must be said) is 'transport'. Israeli composer Yaron Engler's five-minute-long opening piece, 'Rusty Water', has volunteer percussionists from across the county banging out complex rhythms as workmen in a bygone Derry shipyard, employees of the industrious John Laird.

Engler worked on the stunning Political Mother during the 2013 UK City of Culture celebrations with acclaimed fellow Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter, and is in attendance tonight as his wooden ship takes shape before our very eyes. The Walled City Highland Dancers flood into the temporary arena thereafter, their fluid movements a beautiful representation of Derry's ships and sailors taking to the high seas.

The Britannia Band then perform the opening fanfare, followed by a selection of maritime-themed compositions, such as 'Waters of Kylesku'. For tattoo traditionalists, this and the finale later in the evening, is just the kind of spectacle they would have expected – the drummers, pipers and brass band members maintain perfect posture as they perform in unison, despite the swirling tornadoes of sand whipped up from the rectangular stage floor by winds that won't go away.

The bands' music conjures images of empire and joyous victory parades in this, the centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War. Yet while their more upbeat tunes encourage the rather sparse midweek audience to clap in time, more emotive are the solemn songs performed by the Hamilton and Britannia Bands, along with the Londonderry Musical Society.

A version of the theme tune from Steven Spielberg's Second World War television drama Band of Brothers, for example, does these finely-tuned marching machines much more justice than a flitting arrangement of Coldplay's dancey 'Viva La Vida'.

The winds subside somewhat as the next theatrical interlude moves the narrative forward. Now we are reminded of Northern Ireland's railway heyday, when schools would take their classes outdoors for days on the Portrush beaches, and little boys dream of becoming conductors themselves, with their smart tailored suits and ticket punchers: 'All aboard!'

The Walled City Tattoo Modern, Highland and Irish Dancers then suggest the movement of peoples from Derry to towns and cities across Ireland, and much further afield, at the beginning of the 20th century, as they search for work and prosperity far away from their loved ones – while the modes of transport may have evolved with time, the motivations of the young remain the same.

What might have made for a more effective comic performance in a smaller venue is lost on many in the vast Ebrington Square, as Starbugs do their thing to a maddening stop-start soundtrack of chart songs and techno staples.

If dropping drawers, silly sound effects and simply choreographed slapstick is your idea of fun, then this flippant threesome will tickle your fancy. But one cannot help but imagine a series of very large red Xs appearing above their heads in another less forgiving context.

All is not lost, however, as the Paris Fire Brigade Band perform the highlight of the evening, a series of songs beginning with the classic French chanson 'Auprès de ma Blonde' ('Next to My Girlfriend') and finishing, aptly, with an exit march to Derry band The Undertones' punk standard, 'Teenage Kicks'.

This is a group who play to the audience, and their inventive take on Daft Punk's 'Harder Better Faster Stronger', replete with two anonymous DJs fist-pumping above the stage, brings the second Walled City Tattoo bang up to date. Lights, music and movement combine to great effect in the night's only true dancefloor moment – otherwise, it's remarkable how languid marching bands can be.

Iconic aviator Amelia Earhart then makes a fleeting appearance – and one wonders why her striking figure has not been rendered in bronze somewhere within the confines of the Walled City itself – before the Highland dancers strap in for a 'Rocket to the Moon', and The Imps rev up for an impressive motorcycle formation display, riding backwards, jumping through fire and constructing triangles of riders that send hearts into mouths.

Thankfully, no-one is hurt in the making of the 2014 Walled City Tattoo, and everyone goes home happy if a little damp and caked in a sandy film of grit, wishing opening night had taken place on Tuesday, rather than Wednesday, when the sun had set on Derry~Londonderry in a clear sky unspoiled by passing rain clouds.

When that famous arbiter of good taste, Frasier Crane, declared that 'nothing says disaster so quickly as the scurl of a bagpipe', he clearly did so naive to the multifarious attractions of the modern day military tattoo.

No longer the arena of stuffy conversatives, or those with connections to the Armed Forces, 21st century tattoos openly court new audiences by inviting unconventional, family-friendly acts into their programmes, and James Kee and his production team at the Walled City Tattoo have done well to follow suit. Theming next year's extravaganza will be a challenge, but a new angle for them to push to encourage existing to return.

The Walled City Tattoo continues at Ebrington, Derry~Londonderry until August 30.