Review: Goodbye Barcelona, Arcola

“We’ll fight the repercussions with weapons from the Russians”

Inspired by a collection of interviews with British International Brigadiers, the men and women who travelled to Spain to fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, Goodbye Barcelona is a new musical that has taken up residence in the Arcola Theatre’s main studio. Spread over two years, it follows Jewish mother and son, Rebecca and Sammy, both left breathless by the Cable Street Riots in the East End of London and leaving Sammy inspired to go and join the fight for democracy against General Franco’s army-led coup. But once he’s gone, his mother decides to follow him and so volunteers as a nurse, hoping to track him down.

But Judith Johnson’s book is not content with this alone as the story and builds in not one but two romances, as mother and son both succumb to Iberian inamoratas. So the historical context of this unique civil war with people fighting to defend ideologies rather than national identities has to do battle with a pair of love stories and as a result, the material sometimes feels stretched too thinly in trying to do them all justice. The narrative strands swirl around but we move between them too quickly and too often, meaning that characters don’t have enough time to develop and the fascinating insights that have been teased out from the research left largely unexplored.

That’s not to say that what we have isn’t engaging. Tom Gill’s earnest Sammy is an appealing hero, learning quickly about real life as a soldier with his more experienced comrades and about love with the passionate Pilar, a commendable turn from Katie Bernstein. And Lucy Bradshaw beautifully portrays the inner strength of Rebecca, who in the course of nursing John Killoran’s charismatic anarchist Ernesto – whose experience of just how tough life is in Spain is one of those underused strands – finds a new purpose to her own life. And Mark Meadows as grizzled WWI vet Jack shines in the ensemble, his story being another one that could have benefitted from greater foregrounding.

KS Lewkowicz’s music works in Spanish influences but never in an overpowering way and whilst occasionally slipping into the anodyne, there’s also a set of strong anthemic ballads and some intriguing complementary vocal lines playing against Mark Smith’s assured musical direction. One can’t help but wish though that the creative team could have had a little more faith in its audience to connect with an interesting historical story, without overplaying the human interest that the focus on relationship brings.

Programme cost: £1.50
Runs until 23rd December
Note: the default seating arrangement is in place yet again, so my tip is to get there early to try and get one of the few seats that actually face onto the stage

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