Gate Theatre, Notting Hill, London (****)
Bumptious, mouthy, cheeky – Al Smith’s adaptation of Gogol’s short story, Diary of a Madman is all these things and then some. A metaphor that rages about Scottish independence, national identity and corporate take-over wrapped up in the story of a humble man driven mad by loss, Christopher Haydon’s sparky, irreverent production understandably set tongues wagging during its initial run at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.
And with good reason. Isn’t it pushing the envelope a bit to suggest that fighting for a sense of your national self is psychotic?
But, in the end, one’s sympathies must lie with Pop Sheeran, the painter whose job painting the Forth Bridge has been passed down through the generations. As Pop says explaining to young English acolyte, Matt White (yes, cue inevitable trade joke) `I know from the age of them [the handle of the paintbrush] that we have the same bones for the heels of each are worn down to the shape of our hands. They’re like wooden gloves, handshakes across the years.’
Great, memorable phrase – but Smith takes care to interlace his increasingly sombre message with wickedly scurrilous – and wickedly performed – dialogue from Pop’s daughter Sophie and her irrepressible mate, Mel (Lois Chimimba burning up the text).
Haydon’s production beautifully balances outrageous humour with pathos, tension and rage. The evening belongs to Liam Brennan’s Pop steadily descending into the persona of William Wallace with Deborah Arnott achingly poignant as his supportive wife and Guy Clark making quiet impact as a symbol, in Pop’s eyes, first of English dominance and later as Greyfriars Bobby, a hallucinatory embodiment of Scottish rebellion.
A year ago, Smith’s Harrogate was one of the contributions to Hightide 2015. A tale of control and a father’s obsession projected on to a daughter as he and spouse age, Smith’s version here of Gogol’s Madman story featuring a civil servant desperate for recognition and dignity brilliantly re-sites Gogol into the fraught political climate of current Scottish-England relations. Not only political, Smith’s diary of a Madman, too, could be seen as a companion piece to Harrogate – a variation on a theme of male identity under threat.
Terrific, in all senses.
Diary of a Madman
By Al Smith, after Gogol
Mavra Sheeran: Deborah Arnott
Pop Sheeran: Liam Brennan
Mel McCloud: Lois Chimimba
Matthew White/Greyfriars Bobby: Guy Clark
Sophie Sheeran: Louise McMenemy
Director: Christopher Haydon
Designer: Rosanna Vize
Lighting Designer: Mark Howland
Sound Designer: Alexandra Faye Braithwaite
Production Manager: Heather Doole
Associate Lighting Designer: George Bach
Associate Sound Designer: Richard Bell
Assistant Director: Priya Dosanjh
Associate Designer: Anna Lewis
Accent Coach: Cathleen McCarron
World premiere of Diary of a Madman at Gate, Notting Hill, London, July 25; then at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh as part of Edinburgh Fringe 2016, Aug 4, 2016; subsequently at Gate, Notting Hill, Sept 5, 2016