Theatre review: Letters To Morrissey | The Whip Hand

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Edinburgh Festival Fringe: It’s difficult to write about violence in Scottish society without conjuring up a raft of tired and unhelpful stereotypes; and the gifted Gary McNair is a writer-performer who seems, instinctively, to understand that.

Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)

****

Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)

***

In all his shows, there’s a backbeat of violence in his experience as a boy growing up in an ordinary west of Scotland town. Yet the fear is part of a rich and often affectionate picture of that community; and that richness is fully present in his monologue Letters To Morrissey, co-produced by the Traverse and the Tron.

Almost seeming to channel a young Billy Connolly with his gift for conjuring up the working-class absurd, McNair tells the story of how back in the late 1990s, as a solitary teenager, he found solace in the music of Morrissey, and wrote letters to him, asking for advice.

He never received it, of course. Yet the letters mark out a coming-of-age story richly peopled with characters both tragic and comic, from Gary’s doomed friend Tony with his terrifyingly violent Dad, to his slightly scary chum Jan The Lesbian (she insists on the full title). It’s Jan who finally offers Gary the ticket to a Morrissey concert in Glasgow that provides the show with its climax; and gives McNair the writer – 20 years on – a chance to tie up some of the loose ends of this powerful and touching show about what music can mean to a lonely boy.

Douglas Maxwell’s The Whip Hand, by contrast, is a much more ambitious and risky attempt at a dramatic confrontation with some of the underlying violence of Scottish history and society. In the spacious living-room of a grand Victorian villa in Glasgow, three men – uncle, nephew, and uncle’s ex-wife’s new husband – are fiddling with a slide-show presentation that the uncle, Dougie, wants to make on his 50th birthday. The women arrive, in the shape of successful wife and ex-wife Arlene, played with loud flair by Louise Ludgate, and Molly, her daughter from her marriage to Dougie. Yet even before the slide-show starts, there’s a sense of menace, emanating mainly from Arlene; and once it begins – bringing with it accusations about the family’s former complicity in the slave trade, the levels of aggression and mutual resentment soar off the scale.

The problem, though, is that long before the end of Tessa Walker’s sitcom-styled production, its deliberately complex moral structure has descended into exhausting theatrical chaos, as Dougie (Jonathan Watson) suddenly morphs from well-meaning loser into a caricature of a working-class hard man, and everyone shouts at everyone. What emerges is an increasingly familiar assertion that middle-class liberalism is an ugly sham, and that western civilisation is built on levels of violence that will ultimately destroy it; and if that alone is no longer enough to sustain an interesting drama, Maxwell’s effort to give the story a Scottish dimension seems even more problematic, full of half-processed assumptions and stereotypes.

Both until 27 August. The Whip Hand today 4pm; Letters to Morrissey today 11am.