Review: 'Marching on Embers' - UK Tour

Adam Bruce

  • OnStage United Kingdom Critic

I love theatre that gives light to unheard voices. There's something enduringly engaging about it, especially how it taps into an audience's innate desire to hear stories from unexpected, perhaps obscure places. Leeds-based theatre company Buglight showcased how they tap into this desire and hold it as one of their core tenets in their previous show last year, The House Behind the Lines, which took us behind the closed doors of a brothel in the Second World War. Now, they're back with a brand new piece: Marching On Embers. Written by Chris O'Connor and directed by Ruth Carney, I took my seat in the cosy theatre at Seven Arts, Leeds.

Marching On Embers is an immediately contemporary piece that brings us to beautiful but troubled Ireland, whose cultural heritage bears the still-bleeding scars from The Troubles that started in the 70s. We meet Sean (Barrie Calvert), a young, disillusioned lad who spends most of his time at the pub with his friend Cathal (Richard Galloway), drinking away the days and playing pool in the face of a widespread shortage of jobs. Meanwhile, Sean's mother Florie (Maggie Hayes) stays at home and laments the academic departure of her daughter Sinead (Christine Clare), a postgrad student who dreams of a better life in England. Yet the island is still wracked by the brutality of the IRA, and we soon learn that its poisonous grasp preys on both the disillusioned and the innocent alike, sweeping up the family and Cathal into an unforgivable sacrifice. 

The voices of those who have unfortunately been affected by the horrors of Ireland's hereditary cultural turmoil have been heard many times before on a national and international scale. With Buglight's piece, however, we begin to really come to terms with the horrors faced on a domestic, intimate scale. O'Connor's text carefully and concisely spans the journeys of its characters and the reality of their downtrodden yet hopeful existence, reaping great dramatic payoff as the audience becomes drawn into the narrative. 

The small cast does an excellent job of executing this text, demonstrating a clearly harmonious relationship between actor and writer, with director Carney completing the creative triangle that allows for sublime storytelling on a gorgeously intimate level. Calvert captures an energy pulsating beneath a disillusioned young lad seeking to avenge the death of his father; Galloway brings to life a somewhat broken man pushing to inspire and glorify - both of these characters provide us with a gripping ride. Clare and Hayes are perfect as the distant mother and daughter, creating a beautifully watchable discord between Sean and Cathal's journey - and together, we are presented with the gritty realism of a contemporary drama. 

Buglight keep things simple and house the action in Kevin Jenkins' evocation of the two worlds in the play: Cathal's cathartic pub setting and the kitchen where members of Florie's family pass like distant ships in the night. The open design effectively allows us to switch between the dovetails of Carney's directorial style, and we leap from scene to scene seamlessly. This is emphasised by Chris Hanlon's lighting design, which employs an almost filmic way of illuminating the action and helping pull the audience's focus to specific dramatic action, while also providing us with plenty of mood and tone to underpin the themes of the narrative. Ivan Mack's sound design completes the scenography, sporadically bringing in an aural landscape of radio interviews and atmospheric music.

Marching On Embers is a beautiful piece that tragically portrays the harsh reality that accompanies radicalisation. If Buglight continue to craft drama and theatre of this calibre, they will undoubtedly continue to speedily ascend as one of Yorkshire's most exciting new companies. I can't wait to sss what they do next. 


Marching On Embers is currently on tour. For more information and tickets, visit: