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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
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Monday, May 23, 2011

King of Scotland, theatre review

Published in Northings

King of Scotland

AT the box office, the assistant asks a couple buying tickets how they heard about the show. They say it was the poster of Jonathan Watson outside. No doubt they won’t be the only people lured into Iain Heggie’s play by the big picture of the  star of Only an Excuse pasted at the front of the theatre. And no doubt they arrive ready for a good night out.

What they get is something a little bit different. Loosely based on Gogol’s Diary of a Madman, King of Scotland is the modern-day tale of Tommy McMillan whose 28 years of unemployment (“a lifetime achievement”) have left him with nothing but a mould-stricken council flat and an increasingly unhinged sense of reality.

His life would have continued in underclass obscurity had he not been singled out by the department of social inclusion as a prime candidate for a job in a call centre. Signing up for the “training for work” scheme, he becomes a mascot for a government eager to demonstrate the inroads it is making in reaching out to all sectors of society.

McMillan, however, fails to realise he is a figure of political convenience and genuinely believes he has been taken on for his talents and for the rapport he has struck up with Sir Alec, his high-flying boss. What starts off as a naïve misunderstanding develops over the course of the play into seriously delusional behaviour. Even as he is being restrained in a straitjacket, he believes he has been made the King of Scotland.

There are three things going on in the play. One is the straight-ahead comedy of a man being transferred from one social world into another. This is made funnier by Heggie’s scabrous language. The next is the political satire about the gap between the powerful and the dispossessed and about how, behind the campaign slogans and photo opportunities, the establishment will always look after its own. Finally, there is the portrayal of a man’s decline into madness, an affliction that seems to be directly related to the stresses of a disenfranchised life.

What’s likely to surprise people about Watson’s performance is that it is this last aspect he is most drawn to. He has the right comic timing and feel for the west-coast rhythms of Heggie’s script and scores many a laugh but, in the playwright’s own production, he declines to go down the route of sketch-show caricature. Instead, he gives a subdued performance that is poignant in its portrayal of an ordinary man losing his sanity. McMillan’s superiority complex – whether he is lording it over the “riffraff” he lives with or imagining himself as king – comes across not as arrogance but as severe psychological damage.

It is an interesting and sensitive approach, but it deprives the play of some of its raw comedic energy which, I imagine, will leave many of Watson’s fans feeling a little puzzled.

© Mark Fisher 2011
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