“If rock and rolling means perforating your testes, then I’ll stick to just playing guitar thank you very much”
Between recent plays on Wikileaks and Scottish independence at this year’s Edinburgh festival, Welsh playwright Tim Price has shown himself to be utterly unafraid of tackling some of the more pressing topical subjects of our time. The well-received Radicalisation of Bradley Manning has finished for now but I’m With The Band has transferred to the St James Theatre for a two week run. Four piece indie-rock band The Union are riding high on critical and commercial success but a devastating piece of news about their finances leaves them millions in the red and prompts the departure of their lead guitarist Barry. With the original structure broken, the remaining members have to recalibrate and decide what, if any, future remains.
That the key creative relationship in the band is between the Caledonian Barry and the English keyboard player Damien adds piquancy, setting up this allegorical study of what the effects of Scottish independence might be. But he cleverly expands the picture to include Welsh bassist Gruff and Ulsterman Aaron on drums, who has an additional tortured relationship with Irish girlfriend Sinead with whom he shares a house which is divided by a chalk line they never cross, reminding us all that though the focus may be nearly exclusively Anglo-Scottish, there are two more countries involved in the wider question of separation.
It’s a fascinating and genuinely thought-provoking premise but one which is only fitfully served by the play. Price doesn’t advance much beyond the set-up in terms of dramatic characterisation or more crucially, with regards to what might have motivated such momentous decisions. It doesn’t really delve into the complexities of the debate, or convince us of the depth of the relationship which is sundered, and the implications of such a divorce with English ambition left unchecked feel heavy-handed and over-emphatically portrayed in a trying penultimate scene.
But what we do get is four excellently vibrant performances from the actor-musicians who make up the band. Gordon McIntyre’s songs with their portentous titles – ‘The Financial Crash’, ‘Scottish Diplomacy’ – create a raucous sense of pace, the momentum of which director Hamish Pirie never loses as the show expertly skirts the dividing line between play and gig. James Hillier’s arrogant English muso and Andy Clark’s rebellious Scot tussle marvellously as creative spirits who can’t live with or without each other, Declan Rodgers’ impresses physically as the Northern Irish man re-enacting his own version of the Troubles and Matthew Bulgo’s Welshman garners many of the best lines with his straightforward humour.