Theatre review: On The Sidelines

IT'S late on a Saturday afternoon, and John arrives home frozen to the marrow. He's been out watching his 11-year-old son play football; but the home he returns to is not the family house, but a shabby city bedsit, with other single men living similar lives just beyond the paper-thin walls.

Iain Robertson gives a superb solo performance as a father whose marriage has ended in failure. Picture: contributed

Oran Mor, Glasgow ****

John’s marriage has broken up; and although he acknowledges that the relationship was on the rocks, John is still puzzled to find himself, in middle age, back in this world of rooming-houses, mild domestic squalor, and eggs boiled in kettles, for lack of an actual cooker.

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He is, in other words, a kind of man who just didn’t exist a century ago, when men held all the property and family rights, and the end of a marriage – if it happened at all – generally meant that the woman had fled alone, into complete social exclusion; and he is the hero of William McIlvanney’s short play On The Sidelines, created in 2004 for the very first season of A Play, A Pie And A Pint at Oran Mor, adapted from his 1989 short story of the same name, and now revived to mark the first anniversary of McIlvanney’s death, on 5 December.

And the revival could hardly be more timely; for if it is true – as we’re told – that last week’s earthquake in American politics was partly caused by the mounting threat to traditional ideas about masculinity that has rippled across the western world since the 1960s, then William McIlvanney was the writer who became the great poet of that generation of baffled and often dispossessed men.

Born in Kilmarnock in 1936, McIlvanney was the son of an ex-miner, a brilliant boy who became an English teacher; but he also saw the Ayrshire communities he knew so well decimated by economic change, and then by a Thatcher government which welcomed the economic destruction of what were once Labour heartlands.

And although he could write political analysis with the best of them, McIlvanney’s view of this crisis was always, at heart, deeply personal, as he charted the stories of west of Scotland men making their way through a profoundly changed world.

In Gillies Mackinnon’s new production of On The Sidelines for Oran Mor, the award-winning Glasgow actor Iain Robertson gives a superb solo performance as John – likeable, confused, romantic, but visibly struggling to fulfil his role as a father in these strange, changed circumstances.

Behind John, as we look back over McIlvanney’s creative life, stand all the heroes – from the 1930s miner Docherty to the troubled detective Laidlaw –through whom he sought to chronicle this change, using all the power of his learning, his poetry, his street wisdom, and a mind that was always as elegant and cultivated as it was gritty. And in the end, through that creative process, On The Sidelines emerges, like all McIlvanney’s stories, as so much more than a reactionary lament for a world we have lost.

John is sometimes sad, and often confused. Yet he also has hope for a kind of fulfilment that seemed forever beyond his grasp, in the old days; and as he turns his face towards that unknowable future, so do we.