I think David Cameron would quite like I’m With the Band. Written by Tim Price and directed by Hamish Pirie, it uses a band (all male, may I add) to address the state of the union in the UK, considering what happens after the Scot leaves to pursue a solo career. At best, it’s a fun if heavy-handed method of exploring current affairs. At worst, it’s blatant pro-union propaganda.
‘The Union’ is made up of four men – an Englishman, a Scotsman, a Welshman and a Northern Irishman – whose demise begins with a “financial crisis”. Price then explores the various relationships between the different band members (read ‘countries’), which develop as their love for one another is put under pressure. The Englishman, naturally, is in charge, and unsurprisingly the Welshman plays bass. Aaron, the man from Belfast, is in a complex relationship with Sinead – a chalk line splits their house in two. Sometimes, they feel happy to be in their current position. Elsewhere, they want to break free.
The problem is, none of it is very subtle or complex. At all. There’s only really one layer beneath the text, and there’s little attempt to ask questions or actively open up a debate. Right from the off, it seems like the idea of an independent Scotland is ridiculed, and Barry (the Scot) is never strong enough to take control.
The most interesting aspect of the production is its use of music (composed by Gordon McIntyre), which highlights shifts in ideas and temperaments. When Barry begins to make music, it is far more progressive than what Damien (the Englishman) has been attempting, and plays fast and loose with music. Then, later, as Damien begins to break down and take complete control over the other two, he comes up with a loud, brash song with many different sounds and not much of a structure. The other band members hate it, and many audience members put their hands over their ears. Thing is, I quite liked it.
And I think this is the main problem with I’m With the Band; it doesn’t really account for the fact that the issue of the union versus independence is far more complex than simply whether it’s a good idea or not. Price barely even contemplates the notion that an independent Scotland could be a good thing for both itself and the other three nations (he says in the script note that it’s “a play about what can happen if you forget to be friends with those you love”, but isn’t a cordial relationship between countries far more knotty than mere ‘friendship’?). The closest we get is Damien suddenly realising that, like England, he has no “thing” except “the band” – i.e. beyond the UK, England is useless.
The four cast members are all brilliant musicians, but somehow their delivery of Price’s script feels a little stilted. Perhaps its the overly simplified politics and excess of exposition, but there’s never really much for them to engage with. Only Declan Rogers as Aaron ever really captures some emotion, and this is in the speeches about Sinead.
Pirie’s restless staging and a gig-like lighting design from Philip Gladwell add to the fun, but if anything this just covers up the simplified political message at the heart of the piece: though The Union may not be perfect, it’s the best we’ve got. And maybe it’s just me, but I’m not quite ready to accept that until we’ve tried an alternative.
I’m With The Band is at the Traverse until 25 August. For more information and tickets visit the Traverse Theatre website.