STILL A BIGOT
FEDERER VERSUS MURRAY ***
ORAN MOR, GLASGOW
THE THIRD POLICEMAN
ON ELECTION day, Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre staged Gordon Brown: A Life in Theatre, a hastily written, quickly rehearsed and very entertaining play about the outgoing prime minister. Running all the way through, like a motif in a tragic drama, was the phrase: "They should never have put me with that woman."
Personally, I'm not convinced Brown's encounter with Mrs Duffy from Rochdale – aka "that woman" – was as damaging to his electoral performance as the press made out. I happen to like the idea of a politician prepared to condemn prejudice where he finds it, even if he might have missed the mark on this occasion. And, whatever the rights and wrongs, it is clear the question of bigotry is not going to disappear anytime soon.
Despite the topicality, however, it is an anaesthetised, even nostalgic version of bigotry that is drawing in the crowds to Glasgow's Pavilion for James Barclay's Still a Bigot. In its rambling tale of Andra Thomson, a die-hard Protestant and Rangers fan, this broad comedy does not challenge the idea of sectarianism and racial prejudice so much as treat it like a loveable character quirk; misguided, yes, but cute with it.
Unlike Des Dillon's similarly popular and far superior Singin' I'm No a Billy He's a Tim, this comedy is set at a safe distance – the 1970s – when Thomson's bigotry seems like an odd characteristic of the times rather than a divisive social issue. But, actually, toothless politics is the least of Still a Bigot's failings; its heart, after all, is in the right multicultural place and it would be hard to leave thinking Thomson, a poor man's Alf Garnett, has the right idea.
No, the problem is its implausibility. It just isn't possible to accept that a man who can't bring himself to say the word "Pope" could ever have married a Catholic, still less to have stood by while his son went into a seminary. Neither can you believe the same man would consider, even momentarily, a flirtation with the Communist Party. These are no pedantic objections. Situation comedy arises from truthful observation, not bizarre digressions that exist only to serve the plot, and it is hard to laugh when you don't recognise the basic premise.
Take one of the most feeble jokes (and there are many). Thomson tells his wife he has been made Rangers' official poet and shows her the letter to prove it. She reads it and sees the club has barred him and not made him a bard. In case you don't get it, they spell out B-A-R-R-E-D and B-A-R-D a couple of times.
If the pun was worth the effort, you could maybe forget to question how Thomson could have so badly misread the letter, why he hadn't shown it to his wife already and why he does not regard being barred from his beloved club as a catastrophe. As it is, the short sequence throws up these inconsistencies for no worthwhile reason. If Barclay can't be bothered to believe in his hero's dilemma, why should we?
Gallantly, the cast – led by John Murtagh and Barbara Rafferty – have the generous spirit to romp through the material regardless of its substandard gags, unconvincing plot turns and endless repetitions (do they have to react like that every time the doorbell plays The Sash?) It is thanks to the actors and their all-round cheeriness that the audience goes home happy.
You could say the same about Maureen Beattie and Gerry Mulgrew at this week's offering from A Play, a Pie and a Pint, though the material in Gerda Stevenson's Federer Versus Murray is of vastly superior quality.
Using last season's Wimbledon battle as a metaphor for marital tension, Stevenson portrays a couple suffering a deep unhappiness. On the surface, they squabble over his post-redundancy idleness, her long hours on the hospital nightshift and the mystery gentleman caller who has been leaving her flowers. Their real source of discontent, however, is the death of their soldier son in Afghanistan and an inability to process their grief. By the time they have painted their faces in the colours of the Saltire and the Swiss flag to watch the big match, they are channelling global political forces, whether it is her "Mills & Boon nationalism" or his conspiracy-theory war protests.
There is lots of meaty stuff here, all batted back and forth across the net by Beattie and Mulgrew like the pros they are, but Federer Versus Murray shares the weakness of so many plays where death is the starting point. In dramatic terms, grief is inert. It doesn't develop and it can't be resolved. The real action has happened before the play begins and, although Stevenson produces some fine rallies and shows acute human insight, it's never really clear where the play is heading.
Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman also starts with a death – a murder, in fact – but it is one that sets in motion a surreal chain of events affecting the unnamed wooden-legged narrator played here by a cross-dressing Sandra O Malley. O'Brien is known for his absurdist postmodern humour, but director Niall Henry, working with Sligo's Blue Raincoat Theatre Company and an adaptation by Jocelyn Clarke, chooses to present The Third Policeman as a Kafkaesque nightmare in which the leaps of logic are less funny than frightening.
The five actors perform with an intense, high-velocity attack, their deadpan delivery, dark suits and eccentric use of space recalling a piece of avant-garde Polish theatre. If it had been performed in Polish I might have liked it more, for it certainly looks good. In English, however, it is like being hit on the head with the book for 90 minutes. Banishing whimsy, the company hits a pummelling pitch that is admirable in its conviction but hard to enjoy, so that even the inventiveness of half-human bicycles and journeys into eternity wear you down.
• Still a Bigot is at the Pavilion, Glasgow, until Saturday. Federer Versus Murray is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until Sunday. The Third Policeman is at the Tron, Glasgow, until Sunday and at the Traverse, Edinburgh, from 3-5 June.
© Mark Fisher 2010
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