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Goodbye Barcelona

Book by Judith Johnson, music and lyrics by K.S. Lewkowicz
Goodbar Productions
Arcola Theatre
(2011)

Goodbye Barcelona

In an introductory note in the programme, the writers of this new musical tell us that, until their interest was sparked off by an article in The Guardian, they “like most people… knew very little about the Spanish Civil War and the part played by British people, that men and women had volunteered for a war seemingly unconnected to their own lives seemed beyond our comprehension”. Perhaps that is understandable: the Spanish Civil War began and the International Brigade was formed 75 years ago this year but it does show how little the history of the Left is known today. A shocking surprise to me, for I was brought up by a generation that had lived through the Great Depression, the General Strike and the Spanish Civil War as well as the Second World War. Reading Hemingway, Orwell, Auden and Isherwood had added to that awareness with more recent additions from Laurie Lee and Ken Loach.

Goodbye Barcelona is a tribute to the International Brigade, and the British Battalion especially, a celebration of the spirit of solidarity and the anti-fascist feeling that inspired these men and women. But how do you make an upbeat musical out of their doomed enterprise – doomed by the refusal of the Western powers to give the Spanish government forces any support, refusing to supply them arms even though Italy and Germany were providing equipment, planes and men?

They do it by, to a large extent, eschewing the realpolitiks of the time with Fascism spreading across Europe, supported by plenty in the governing classes including members of the British royal family. The basic facts are there but this is not a history lesson. There are references to places, battles and reverses but no attempt to explain the tactics of the confronting forces, the involvement of foreign forces on the rebel side or the serious divisions and possible betrayals on the part of the government’s supporters. While each Brigader will have had their own reasons for volunteering, a point that this script makes, its opening scenes around the Battle of Cable Street give the answer to the question why, provided one is aware of what preceded them. That took place in October 1936 when anti-fascist forces of the Left attempted to halt a march through London’s East End by Oswald Mosley’s black-shirted British Union of Fascist. Hitler was already in power and a year earlier the Third Reich introduced new laws depriving Jews of citizenship and the Nuremberg Rally, filmed by Leni Reifenstahl had demonstrated the glamour and growth of Nazism. The Spanish Civil War had begun in July when Franco and a group of right-wing generals staged their coup against the Spanish government and in August the Berlin Olympic Games had focused attention on Hitler’s Germany. For those opposed to Fascism the threat was clear.

By starting off with numbers that incorporate snatches of the Internationale and Spanish Communist leader Dolores Ibárruri (popularly known as La Pasionaria) making one of her broadcasts from Madrid this musical rapidly establishes a mood of political awareness and international solidarity felt by those on the Left.

The plot then focuses on the stories of two East Enders: Sammy, a Jewish teenager manning the East End barricades and touched by news reports of the suffering of Spain’s ordinary people who lies about his age and volunteers, and of his widowed mother who, a few months later, goes to Spain in search of him and becomes a nurse with the Republican forces. Sammy falls for a destitute young Spanish girl, she teams up with an anarchist and events become the background to two love stories. Sammy’s protective comrades in the British Battalion include a warm-hearted deeply committed fighter, cheerful even when things are at their worst and a more complex, seemingly cynical fellow who does not wear his heart on his sleeve but makes himself responsible for Sammy losing his virginity before it is too late.

Johnson and Lewkowicz don’t go in for phoney happy endings, nor do they wax sentimental but nor do they face up to the nitty gritty of the war or the Kremlin controlled operations that undermined things. There is a deeper drama that is not explored here. The changing rhythms of the music, sometimes touched with flamenco, interestingly scored for cello, percussion and guitar give a strongly positive feeling even when things are bad, and are very engaging. The numbers are part of the story and create its tempo.

There is a fine performance from Tom Gill as Sammy which has just the right amount of innocence about it and Lucy Bradshaw as his mother gives us a woman who blossoms. John Killoran has great warmth as the anarchist Ernesto and his song with Rebecca “In Spanish” is a delight. Mark Meadows is excellent in suggesting the good heart behind the hurt cynic Jack and ,as his comrade George, Jack Shalloo keeps our spirits up, but this is an ensemble show in which everyone one works hard and Karen Rabinowitz ‘s direction keeps us from noticing how relatively slight the plot is for such a momentous tragedy.

Nigel Hook’s design uses little more than a traverse curtain with a few tables and chairs and props but uses them skilfully to create different locations, sometimes simultaneously, that are greatly enhanced by Rob Halliday’s lighting.

Goodbye Barcelona held me in performance and gives what seems a very honest portrayal of those idealistic British Brigaders but it would be good to see it fleshed out beyond the private fictional story to reflect more of the events in which they took part.

“Goodbye Barcelona” runs at the Arcola Theatre until 23rd December 2011

Reviewer: Howard Loxton