The Beaches of St Valery

Three-quarters of a century on, there are still stories of the Second World War that aren’t as well known as they should, but Stuart Hepburn’s new play—while promoted as telling the untold story of Churchill’s politically-expedient “sacrifice” of the 51st Highland Division, which he ordered to remain in France post-Dunkirk in order to keep France in the fight against Nazi Germany—is in actual fact a relatable “coming of age” story.

The Beaches of St Valerey nevertheless remains a touching story of love and courage in truly horrifying circumstances

For Hepburn’s way into the story is Callum Chisholm, and a succession of 17 letters he apparently wrote—though he couldn’t possibly have sent—to his younger brother Fergus. Our introduction to Callum is as a young man, fresh out of school, helping build the new A9 between Perth and Inverness. Full of wonder at the natural world around him in the Scottish Highlands, he’s content working with his school mates. They sign up to the Territorials as a lark, but of course it’s a decision that ultimately leads to them facing the unstoppable horror of the Nazi German blitzkrieg.

Chased to the blood-soaked beaches of St Valery, the worn-down survivors of the 51st are finally forced to surrender, but it’s during the early stages of their forced march to Poland that real life offers an escape no fiction could match; Callum is helped to freedom by an ex-pat Fife miner called McLean and his daughter Catriona. On the downside, we lose sight of those east-bound 51st Highlanders, but it is here—while helping maintain and repair the tunnels used to aid escaping Allied personnel—that we’re able to see Callum emotionally grow into a man.

Though initially played by Ron Donachie, most of the emotional heavy lifting in Callum’s story is in the hands of James Rottger, who ably portrays the young man who ultimately returns to St Valerey as an officer to find Catriona (Ashley Smith, who like Donachie smoothly takes on other roles as and when required) and their son, whom she named Fergus. With little beyond a couple of chairs as “set”, much of the context for events is given through back-wall projections and song, but the heart and humour of the story is firmly down to the actors on stage.

As with any history, Callum’s story is necessarily viewed from today’s perspective—we’re told that the German commander to whom the 51st surrendered to in 1940 is the “not yet famous” Rommel, for example. If one aspect of the story’s conclusion is perhaps somewhat trite to modern tastes, The Beaches of St Valerey nevertheless remains a touching story of love and courage in truly horrifying circumstances; one that’s told succinctly, unsentimentally, and—above all—memorably.

Reviews by Paul F Cockburn

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The Blurb

Churchill hailed the “miracle of Dunkirk” when all 350,000 men of the British Expeditionary Force were evacuated to safety. But for the men of the 51st Highland Division, there was no miracle. Sacrificed in a secret political deal, Churchill ordered them to stay and fight...