Edinburgh Fringe 2016
Al Smith’s play is drama at its humanity exploring best. Based on Gogol, it sees outside forces challenge Pop Sheeran’s job, status and sense of self; his family unit is shaken as desire, impatience and madness threaten to take them away from one another. The principle catalyst for unravelling is the arrival of Matthew White, an Englishman with a knighted father whose very presence provides Pop with a comparison against which he finds himself lacking.
This is a searingly honest, humorous and engaging play and I was completely engrossed. The acting is transporting; I felt so much for Pop’s family, for Pop himself and for Matthew, as madness began to take hold. The script is packed with pain, puns and punchlines, enabling each actor to successfully endear you to their character’s plight. Liam Brennan’s Pop really clearly showed this female, English, middle class reviewer what it might be like to lose grip on that which makes you man, Scottish, breadwinner and father. It’s heart-breaking not least because we know from the start that it will happen, although we don’t know how those around him will behave. Mel (Lois Chimimba) is a brilliantly insensitive pain in the arse, coupling well-meaning interference with inconsiderate gossip. She is the perfect teenager, to whom I gave a silent cheer when she rose to the occasion and went to buy the round at the appropriate moment. Sophie (Louise McMenemy) held a mirror up to my teenage arguments with my father, but with the frightening addition of having to deal with “a time bomb inside my [her] head”. Her struggle to assert herself and decide her own fate when she feels all the decisions have always been made for her, is beautifully realised.
Two scenes between Guy Clark (Matthew) and Brennan stand out. Over beer, Pop brings up sex in a way you’d never want to hear of it from your host/lover’s dad (I mean, is there a way you would like to hear of it?). Sophie later describes the exchange as “awkward” – the overt honesty with which Pop tramples over Matthew makes this an understatement. Their subsequent confrontation is electric and sees neither triumphing, neither getting what he wants, both restricted by social and emotional confines. It sparks sympathy as well as distinct, uncomfortable recognition from the audience.
Christopher Haydon’s direction uses the thrust stage to ensnare the audience in the tense, inhibiting circumstance of the piece. The fourth wall is broken infrequently but effectively: actors enter and exit with energy, characters are placed in the auditorium, and Greyfriars Bobby wanders freely among us. Most of the best pieces I’ve recently seen reduce the stage to chaotic mess by curtain down, favouring freedom of movement and expression over a stage manager’s easy life, and this is no exception.
If you can get your hands on a ticket then go. Each characters’ struggle to break free of what confines them – love, duty, or lack of knowledge, grades, power or privilege – is beautifully shared, felt and enjoyed in this intimate space. It’s a drama as complicated, simple, funny and sad as the humans it portrays.