works can be accused of relying on their location to do the heavy-lifting,
theatrically speaking. Certainly, there’s no doubt that
much of the dramatic resonance of
Written by playwright Duncan Kidd with dramaturg Steve Small and a team of community researchers, Persevere – the motto of Leith itself – shows the impact of the disaster on the community through five people – a wife, a sister, a mother, a pacifist teacher and a recruiting sergeant.
Today the Drill Hall on Dalmeny Street, Leith, is a well-established, community-focused arts centre, home to a variety of local arts and media businesses including both theatre groups behind Persevere. One hundred years ago, however, the Drill Hall was – as the name suggests – official home of the 7th (Leith) Battalion of the Royal Scots. It was also the building to which, on the evening of Saturday 22nd May, 1915, more than 100 coffins were brought following the worst railway disaster in British history, at Quintinshill, north of Gretna.
The crash, involving five steam trains, killed more than 200 members of the 7th Battalion, and injured even more. Given that the Battalion recruited its soldiers mostly from Leith (as well as nearby Portobello and Musselburgh) it was later said that no family in the Burgh – rich or poor – had been left untouched by the disaster. And in those long ago days before radio and television, it was to the Drill Hall that frantic mothers, wives and daughters had rushed, desperate for news of fathers, husbands and sons.
Written by playwright Duncan Kidd with dramaturg Steve Small and a team of community researchers, Persevere – the motto of Leith itself – shows the impact of the disaster on the community through five people – a wife, a sister, a mother, a pacifist teacher and a recruiting sergeant. Each strand consists of three, brief tableau scenes – the first set before the soldiers’departure in early May, the second on the Saturday of the crash, and the third on the day of the mass funeral. Each takes place within a specific part of the Drill Hall; the audience is randomly given a first scene to attend, and then can choose which storylines they follow.
Significantly – and quite deliberately – there is time to see just nine of the total 15 scenes on offer, meaning that – as in life – we never get the whole story. On the opening night – performed on the actual centenary of disaster itself – some scenes appeared to run more quickly than others, leading to brief pauses for parts of the audience. Yet the dramatic impact of Persevere was undeniable. Thanks to some excellent performances from a 24-strong cast of amateur actors, you felt a real connection with the distraught women who had attempted to identify their lost ones in the very hall we were standing in.
Emotive, yet controlled, Gavin Crichton’s direction – not least the decision to signify the end of each scene with a simple, sung melody – ensure a somber atmosphere overall. Yet it’s arguably in the big scenes, when the whole cast and audience are brought together in the main hall, that the full human impact of the disaster truly hits home. No more so than when a single stretcher laden with a Union Jack is marched out of sight of the audience, and the accompanying funereal singing of the 23rd Psalm feels like a direct connection with the stricken families who were not allowed to attend the official mass-burial in the nearby Rosebank Cemetery and so conducted a funeral service in the Drill Hall.