Edinburgh Fringe 2012
A multimedia performance of First World War songs and poetry by a cast of well-known folk singers, including Ian McCalman, Dick Gaughan, Nick Keir, Stephen Quigg and Siobhan Miller, with narration by Iain Anderson.
Based on a CD of the same name and with a huge cast of over twenty singers, Far, Far from Ypres is a multimedia show tracing the First World War from beginning to end from a Scottish point of view through song, spoken word and photographs.
The songs are a mixture of the popular songs of the period, both songs about the war and music hall hits, and later compositions inspired by World War I. BBC Scotland’s Iain Anderson narrates the story of Jimmy MacDonald, a kind of everyman Scottish soldier, along with the history of the war and the trench experience through poetry, prose and anecdote.
There was a good mixture of the elegiac and the upbeat, often the black trench humour of the soldiers themselves, and an imaginative mix of songs and sources. The large cast worked well for group songs, creating the sound of an army singing, particularly with the snare drum accompaniment.
Particular highlights were Jim Reid’s setting of the Violet Jacob’s poem Halloween, written on hearing the news of the death of her son in the war, and John Tam’s Devonshire Carol. There were some outstanding performances too, such as the lovely renditions of Jim Malcolm’s Jimmy’s Gone to Flanders by Siobhan Miller and Domhnall Ruadh Choruna’s An Eala Bhan by Sionag MacIntyre.
The singing quality was variable though and there was the sense that the right singers hadn’t always been matched with the right songs. Stephen Quigg particularly seemed to be straining to reach the high notes on some of his pieces.
Neither the singers nor the songs were introduced and with such a large cast, not all of them well known, it would have been good to have a programme of songs and singers, so the audience could identify who and what they were listening to, and to give credit where it was due to the composers and performers.
Perhaps there was an over-reliance on the audience buying the CD to get the background information, as it felt like the performance wasn’t complete in itself.
There were also issues with the technology. The overhead projections looked a bit amateurish and they were too high above the musicians. Right at the beginning of the show the laptop running the visuals switched to standby while projecting onto the screen, which was amusing, but not particularly professional, and the change from one photo to the next was too slow with a very long blurring of the two images, which got rather tedious.
Technical issues also marred Dick Gaughan’s performance as the power-voiced Gaughan sang through a microphone that the gentler Sionag MacIntyre had just been using without the sound levels being altered, so the emotion of his Why Old Men Cry was marred by being absolutely deafening.
The story of the soldier Jimmy felt contrived and hung rather awkwardly over the songs. The real stories of Violet Jacob’s and Sir Harry Lauder’s responses to the loss of their children were far more moving than that of a fictional private and it would have been better to let the songs and history speak for themselves.
Parts of the show were too rushed and more space needed to be left for silence after the sad moments – too often Iain Anderson rushed straight in with the next piece of narration or the tempo switched to something upbeat, when time for quiet contemplation was needed.
It also wasn’t clear why the particular combination of songs and narrative had been chosen, as many had no obvious connection to Scotland. Since Far, Far from Ypres is essentially a performed anthology, they may well simply have been a selection of organiser Ian McCalman’s favourite wartime songs, which is absolutely valid, but it would have been good to know that.
A very obvious omission though was the Flowers of the Forest, probably the most well-known Scottish lament for fallen soldiers. Although the tune was played in the introductory soundtrack, the song was not included in the show, a strange omission, particularly given the presence of Dick Gaughan, who has done a lovely arrangement of it in the past.
Overall the show felt rather random and lacked coherence. Despite the benefits of an army of singers for the marching songs, there were just too many performers and it would have been better to handpick a smaller group and fine tune a little more. That said, the songs were well-performed and there were many moments of great beauty and emotion.