Fringe theatre reviews: Jack Docherty | Shook | Paddy the Cope

It may seem like a light-touch piece of personal reminiscence, but Jack Docherty’s show about a life-changing experience at the Fringe four decades ago poses some powerful questions about how men behave, and their attitudes towards their children, writes Joyce McMillan

Jack Docherty

There’s no doubt that the social upheavals of the last 40 years – from the new economic empowerment of women, to the #metoo movement – have left millions of men feeling uncertain about what exactly has hit them, and what society now expects of them. For some, these changes have led to painful self-questioning; for others, only to self-pity and indignation. And then there are those who strive to conjure comedy gold out of the situation; none more so than Jack Docherty, once a member of legendary 1980s Fringe comedy team The Bodgers, and these days best known as a co-writer and performer of television comedy, not least the long-running Channel 4 show Absolutely.

Jack Docherty’s new Fringe show, though, is not so much stand-up comedy as an hour of light-touch solo theatre, about one magical night on the Edinburgh Fringe, almost 40 years ago, that has somehow haunted his life ever since. Playing at the Gilded Balloon, Jack Docherty – Nothing But **** is a hugely engaging and beautifully-shaped piece of personal reminiscence, or fantasy, about how the young Jack met the girl of his dreams one evening on the Fringe – an American student, set to return home the next morning – and spent a night of sexual ecstasy with her, wandering the Festival City, and making love on Arthur’s Seat at sunrise.

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The problem with all this is that young Jack already has a girlfriend at the time, the woman he would eventually marry; and he conjures a fine and occasionally thought-provoking tale out of the cowardice that leads him to continue with that relationship, through the birth and childhood of his daughter, until an inevitable mid-life crisis brings his old experience of ecstasy back to haunt him.

Like most comedy writers in this territory, Docherty depends on, and essentially fails to challenge, the complicity with his behaviour of much of his audience; in a gentle, self-deprecating way, he is still doing that old thing of inviting us to love him for his laddish sins, even as he acknowledges the pain he has caused. Yet there’s no gainsaying the sheer craft and skill with which he tells his tale; and the powerful questions about some men’s behaviour, particularly towards their children, that often lie beneath the genial surface of the story.

There’s no option of such a light-touch approach to masculinity and fatherhood for the three boys at the heart of Samuel Bailey’s Shook ****, a huge London fringe hit in 2019. Set in a parenting class at a Young Offenders’ Institution, the play explores the profound tension tween the brutal imperatives of life there – where the choice is often between being violent and cruel, or becoming a victim of violence and cruelty – and the hopes these young men cherish of being good fathers to their children.

Hyperactive live-wire Cain already has two kids, and a chance to escape the institution through a restorative justice process, if he can bring himself to take it. Academically gifted Ryan has a young son by whom he longs to do the right thing; and gentle Jonjo’s chances of becoming a hands-on father are slim, since he has just begun a long sentence for killing his violent stepfather.

There’s a huge poignancy to the unfolding of Bailey’s drama, as these boys who have known little but violence get down to the business of dealing with realistic baby dolls, and learning how to change their nappies. As for their teacher, Grace, she clearly has her story, too, although we are left to piece it together for ourselves; and the whole powerful 90-minute drama is beautifully realised in a fine production by the New Celts company of graduating students from Napier and Queen Margaret Universities, featuring memorable performances from Ryan Stoddart, Kieran Begley, and William Dron, with director Rebecca Morgan as Grace, the woman at the eye of the play’s emotional storm.

At the Scottish Storytelling Centre, meanwhile, Raymond Ross’s new Theatre Objectiv play Paddy The Cope **** essentially offers an answer for men – and women – uncertain what to do with their lives, and their strength; use them, if you can, to organise for a better world, and to help empower those who are suffering poverty and oppression. In a brief but hugely dynamic hour, Paddy The Cope tells the true story of Patrick Gallagher of Donegal, who came to Scotland to work in the shale pits of West Lothian in the late 19th century, and witnessed at first hand the value of the co-operative movement, as it provided working people with the goods and financial services they needed, at prices they could afford.

Back in Donegal in the 1890s, Paddy and his wife Sally therefore set up a co-operative for their local community, attracting the wrath of bosses, shopkeepers, and the local Catholic church alike. In the end, though, Paddy’s “Cope” triumphed, and he became a much-loved leading figure of the co-operative moment in Ireland. In John McColl’s powerful solo performance – accompanied throughout by eloquent and gorgeous fiddle music from Sue Muir – Paddy’s story is told with a vivid richness of incident that casts a huge light on the intense traffic of people, trade and ideas between Scotland and Ireland in the late 19th century; and on how the growing labour and co-operative movement of those days united people who have since often been tragically divided, by conflicts that serve the interests only of those who already hold power, and do not wish to let it go.

Jack Docherty - Nothing But is at the Gilded Balloon until 29 August; Shook is at Space Triplex until 28 August; Paddy The Cope is at the Scottish Storytelling Centre until 30 August, www.edfringe.co.uk

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