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FringeReview Scotland 2023

Dear Billy

National Theatre of Scotland

Genre: Comedic, Theatre

Venue: Cumbernauld Theatre at the Lanternhouse


Low Down

Gary McNair, with a not inconsiderable resemblance to the Big Yin himself, enters a stage filled with hints of Billy Connolly scattered throughout it to introduce the fruits of his and many researcher’s labour. Overt 90 minutes it is his face and his voice which tells the tales of a huge number of people who have been affected by the work of Scotland’s greatest ever comedian – gathered by MacNair and the aforementioned researchers combing the highways, byways, folk clubs and streets of Scotland. It is not a homage, but a love letter to someone who is much more than the parts of himself. Meandering in a Connollyesque fashion we have connections from people who knew him, never met him, are his greatest ever fan or who didn’t really have a lot of time for him as we see the effect rather than the material of a man who has gone beyond being an institution.


This was genius. If I was to stop my review here, I would be happy in the knowledge that I had it all covered. But it would do Gary McNair AND the team behind this few favours because you should know why they deserve that accolade.

Let’s start with the subject material. In fact, let’s not. If you want to know why this is a worthy subject for a theatrical event in itself, go and see the show – still on tour, still tickets available – though selling fast. It shall tell you. Suffice to say, that this is a well deserved focus on an amazing story of a flawed individual who encompasses the Everyman – the elder indeed of us all.

But if you are handed the beauty of a subject, you still have to do something with it theatrically to make it an event. That’s the genius.

McNair, who, tells us he told Connolly he was going to do this, hit upon the best of an idea. He went out and found out from people what effect Connolly had had on ordinary people, people in his industry and people struggling, laughing and getting through. There is a homage to the material which made Connolly’s name. we hope it’s true, but that truth shines through meaning we know, you know, you just know, and it is splendid. And if it is not true, it’s funny. And that’s where you park your bike.

Once the material is gathered and fashioned into a structure, it needs some deft handling. Joe Douglas’s direction and Gary MacNair’s performance is a combined masterclass. Considering that this is a subject most people in the audience would have an opinion on, plenty to say if it had not hit the right notes this had a target on the script from day one. McNair got the laughs, invited pins to drop and seamlessly took us from kazooing alongside the band, to giving us the pathos of people who needed to laugh to get through huge personal challenges or just luxuriate in the effect of the Crucifixion – all without falling into the trap of doing the routines. There were nods, from just saying something funny to appearances on Parkinson, being condemned by a well known Pastor and the childhood and shipyards tales which were familiar. But it was wrapped up in a new set of clothing that had people laughing and in rapture.

But a wee word about Gary McNair. The last time, I saw something as deftly handled, intuitively performed we had to bid for hundreds of pounds for a ticket to see them at the Armadillo. McNair may resemble the man in more than just looks.

Technically the set manages to hint at the Big Yin in a way that Connolly builds a tale. He hints a little, suggests a thing, forgets the name of it, remembers the effect of it and then delivers the punchline. And so there is a hint of a pair of eyes watching over you, suggestion of the use of a banana in a new and interesting way, a reminder of a song involving footwear which would be sweltering in the heatwave to allow the effect of the man to be remembered – with an Oor Wullie type nod too – in a context of his punchlines as the set matches the thrust of the piece, thanks to Claire Halleran and the lighting duo of Kate Bonney and Simon Hayes.

Then there’s the band. So often Connolly’s contribution to music is lost in the idea of his well-known songs, hits which were parodies or simply extensions of his act. Of course, nobody wants to say they were going out with a  banjo player, but here we get that contribution highlighted and we have a band of two – Simon Liddell and Jill O’Sullivan – who do more than know their place. O’Sullivan’s voice is beautiful and wrapped in the compositions, given by Liddell, craftly poised for a kazoo, or two.

McNair, by the end of the run may not manage to master the banjo, but here he has mastered us. This is far more than a letter to the Big Yin. And that is the genius here – by focussing on us, he can show that Connolly came from us, has represented us and then is coming back to us. And that should never have happened when he was deid. And tonight, ahm hunting down a flump in his honour.


Show Website

Dear Billy