Theatre review: Kill Johnny Glendenning, Edinburgh

IT’S A sensitive weekend, following the emotional roller-coaster of the referendum debate, for any show to be exposing the dark underbelly of Scottish life with the kind of ruthless flair shown by Ayrshire playwright D C Jackson in this fierce opening blast to the autumn season at the Royal Lyceum. Thanks to a fantastically bold and inventive script, though, and a fast, fearless and witty production by the Lyceum’s Mark Thomson, the experience is somehow more life-enhancing than alarming, or depressing.

Paul Samson plays gangland chief MacPherson in terrific Glasgow style, while David Ireland is brilliantly believable as Belfast killer Glendenning
Paul Samson plays gangland chief MacPherson in terrific Glasgow style, while David Ireland is brilliantly believable as Belfast killer Glendenning

Kill Johnny Glendenning - Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

* * * *

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Co-produced with the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow – where it appears next month – Jackson’s new drama is set in the West End of Glasgow, and in the Ayrshire badlands between Glasgow’s gangster underworld, and the well-practised thuggery of Northern Ireland’s former paramilitaries, in an age when the Troubles are over, but some still use violence to further their own ends.

The scene of the first act – with overtones not only of Martin McDonagh, whose wild cat-tearing drama The Lieutenant Of Inishmore is an obvious reference, but also of Reservoir Dogs, Deliverance and Cold Comfort Farm – is the squalid kitchen of a bleak and filthy pig-farm in Ayrshire, whose cadaverous steward Auld Jim – played in tremendous lugubrious style by Kern Falconer – runs a sideline in disposing of inconvenient corpses by feeding them to his pigs.

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His services are much appreciated by suave Glasgow gangland chief MacPherson, two of whose junior goons have just arrived with a bound and kidnapped journalist called Buchanan, who is currently locked in a kitchen cupboard.

Much black-as-night hilarity ensues, as the goons accidentally murder Buchanan, while Auld Jim stolidly brews undrinkable tea, but the action acquires a much sharper edge with arrival of MacPherson himself – played in terrific Glasgow style by Paul Samson – and of the notorious Johnny Glendenning, a blisteringly violent Belfast killer who is simultaneously publishing memoirs about the paramilitary past he is supposed to have left behind, while pursuing his career as a modern drugs baron and enforcer.

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And it’s around David Ireland’s astonishing, contradictory, yet brilliantly believable and subtle performance as Glendenning that the rest of the play takes shape, as the second-act action flips back several hours to the scene of the kidnap in Buchanan’s West End flat, and takes us through the ensuing day and night of mayhem from a completely different angle.

The ending is abrupt, perhaps too much so for those – like me – who are slow to untangle gangster plots. Yet this show boasts a stunning series of performances, not only from David Ireland and Paul Sansom, but from Steven McNicoll as Buchanan, Philip Cairns as the senior goon Dominic, and Joanne Thomson as Dominic’s no-holds-barred nine-months pregnant wife, Kimberley.

And if Jackson’s script is not for the faint-hearted – studded as it is with ear-blistering levels of obscenity – it finally delivers a searing Scottish gangster drama for our times, not entirely clear in its overall meaning, but so full of rich, telling and hilarious detail that it hardly seems to matter.

Seen on 19.09.14