I'm With the Band
This play about a band featuring an Englishman, Scotsman, Welshman and Northern Irishman is predictably dysfunctional
It's always encouraging to encounter a new play that aims to take on a current issue with a bit of imagination and attitude. After its premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August 2013, Tim Price's I'm With the Band crosses the water for a short two-night run at the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey, its only dates on this side of the Irish Sea.
At its conception, it clearly seemed like an original idea with huge contemporary appeal – a rock musical take on Scottish independence, set against the vexed relationships and internal squabbles that have long existed within the far from united United Kingdom.
The central conceit is that of a once-successful indie band called – wait for it – The Union. Keyboard player Damien (James Hillier) is English. Lead guitarist and fellow songwriter Barry (Andy Clark) is Scottish. Bass player Gruff (Matthew Bulgo) is Welsh. Drummer Aaron (Declan Rodgers, fresh from the excellent Can't Forget About You at the Lyric Theatre) is, of course, from Northern Ireland.
Ten years after their first number one hit, The Union are back in the recording studio, laying down tracks for their new album. Its 12 songs constitute the building blocks of the play, each title flagging up the ensuing stages of the allegorical debate. Track 1 is entitled 'We're All in This Together'. Track 2 is 'The Financial Crisis', at which point the partnership starts to unravel.
Infuriated by the revelation that their (English) manager has failed to submit VAT returns for the past 12 years – and generally disillusioned by his band's lack of musical progress – Barry decides to cut and run. But, as he will soon discover, forging success as a solo artist is a far trickier undertaking than he had imagined.
Contractual obligations raise their ugly heads and the bleak truth gradually dawns, that, for all his ambition and ability, in order to make it alone Barry has little option but to replicate that old collective sound, which has proved so popular over the years.
And that, in a nutshell, is it. There are one or two distractions, such as Aaron's difficulties with his partner Sinead, which is briefly resolved through an unexpectedly bizarre and graphically described bout of rough sex. And there is a hint of a clandestine connection between Aaron and Barry's wife Karen. Disappointingly, however, the mystery amounts to a complete non sequitur in that Karen and Sinead merely turn out to be sisters.
The big winner of the evening is Gordon McIntyre's original, purpose-built score. Full marks to the four actors, who turn in perfectly credible individual performances while singing and playing live instrumentals to a high standard. The song lyrics hugely compensate for shortcomings in script and characterisation, and explore some intriguing aspects of independence and nationalist aspirations.
Structurally, music and dialogue fit neatly together, with the songs leading the way. Irony is present in huge helpings as 'The Referendum' segues into 'The Red Hand of Ulster Grips', followed by 'Welsh Self-Esteem', 'New Country for Old Men', 'An Independent Scotland', 'The Troubles with You', 'Scottish Diplomacy', 'How to Lose Friends and Alienate Countries' and the patience-busting 'Hell in an English Garden'.
The four band members largely conform to easy stereotypes. English Damien is glib and creative, an inveterate show-off, the acknowledged leader of the gang, eternally optimistic and up to all kinds of editing and mixing trickery when the need arises. Barry is a glowering, laconic figure, scabrous of tongue, disrespectful of authority, totally immersed in the sounds he can persuade out of his beloved guitar.
Together they channel an entertaining Jagger/Richards partnership – Damien all loose limbed confidence, Barry the dark genius behind The Union's trademark sound. Welsh Gruff, meanwhile, is a mass of uncertainties and insecurities, seeking refuge in his low-profile bass guitarist role, before suddenly exploding when Damien's crazy inventiveness sends him over the edge.
Finally, Aaron is the flamboyant drummer, the dangerous heartbeat pounding away in the background. He and Barry – i.e., Scotland and Northern Ireland – have been friends and allies for many years. But when their friendship turns to hostility, they row as only old friends can, with relentless fury and a diminishing vocabulary peppered by words beginning with f and c.
The final number is entitled 'The Future'. In the line-up are Damien, Gruff, Aaron… and Barry. So much for that break for freedom and such a pity that lift-off is not achieved from such promising beginnings.
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