Union Royal Lyceum

Given the political nature of the day, with Scotland’s independence referendum on the horizon and scare stories issuing from both the pro and con camps, Tim Barrow’s play could not have arrived at a more appropriate time. Concerned not with this momentous future event, but with the 1707 Act of Union that ended the Scottish Parliament and joined Scotland with England and Wales, this is a sprawling, ungainly play that veers from powerful historical drama to near pantomime.

Set largely in a pub in the old town, where an unlikely mix of nobles, poets, prostitutes and drunken wasters spend time on drinking, eating and plotting, it takes Scottish poet Allan Ramsay as the central character. Around him revolve English spy Daniel Defoe (Ifan Meredith), Ramsay’s prostitute lover Grace (surely Barrow could have come up with less obvious names than Grace and Favour for the women?) and the nobility in the shape of the Duke of Queensberry and the Earl of Stair.

Defoe is there to offer bribes to ensure that parliament votes in favour of the Union. Which, in the end, it does by 110 votes to 69. While it is entirely possible that this would have happened anyway, the £12,000 pounds it cost England was regarded as money well spent.

That’s the short and to the point version. Unfortunately, this play is neither of those things. Overlong and heading up too many dark closes, it loses momentum at important moments. There is a great play locked in here, but there is much trimming needed to bring the central arguments to light. Much of the drinking and carousing could have been left out, as could a deal of the time spent at Queen Anne’s court.

In contrast, the scenes of parliamentary debate are gripping and powerful, aided by Andrzej Goulding’s set designs which are excellent throughout. Lined up and facing the audience, the MPs make their pitch for and against the proposed union. Those against are led by the eloquent Lord Belhaven (Keith Fleming), whose arguments are unfortunately undermined by the fact that, as architect of the Darien disaster, he is partly responsible for Scotland’s financial ill-health.

So Queensberry, Stair and their supporters win the day, and the union comes in to being – a result that led to rioting in the streets of Edinburgh and elsewhere as the populace realised that their faith in their government had been misplaced. Allan Ramsay’s part here is as the voice of the people, and he comes across as bewildered by the vote, having had an unswerving belief that Queensberry would heed the people’s wishes.

If Barrow’s point is that the corruption that exists in the taverns and brothels frequented by the “common people” is nothing compared to the corruption and decadence rife among the highest in the land, then he’s made it in spades.
It remains a play well worth seeing, and were it not for the frequent and enthusiastic swearing (probably more use is made of the “c” word here than is strictly necessary) I’d recommend it for schools. And there’s a mighty performance from Liam Brennan as Queensberry who convinces as a man gets what he wants and sweeps a whole country along with him. And Tony Cownie excels as the quietly sinister and utterly ruthless Earl of Stair, whose only regret after masterminding the Glencoe massacre was that he did not go far enough. Sic a parcel o’ rogues in a nation, indeed.

But I left the theatre thinking that, powerful as it is, this could have been so much more.

Jim Welsh