Theatre reviews: Dear Billy | Beautiful People

Billed as a love letter to the Big Yin from the people of Scotland, Dear Billy is exactly the kind of story our National Theatre should be telling, writes Joyce McMillan

Dear Billy, Traverse, Edinburgh *****

Beautiful People, Tron, Glasgow ****

It’s the sheer, simple eloquence of Claire Halleran’s set that first catches the attention, in the National Theatre of Scotland’s new show Dear Billy, subtitled "a love letter to the Big Yin from the people of Scotland”. There’s a two-piece band in the corner, and a curtained entrance at the back; but the space is dominated by three glowing neon signs in shapes that sum up Scotland’s greatest living comedy star for his fans across the world – a welly boot, a big banana, and a pair of amused-looking round wire specs, looking out over the scene.

Gary McNair in Dear Billy PIC: Eoin CareyGary McNair in Dear Billy PIC: Eoin Carey
Gary McNair in Dear Billy PIC: Eoin Carey

It’s 50 years since Connolly’s group the Humblebums first emerged from Scotland’s radical folk scene, as a cheeky urban antidote to what Connolly called its obsession with “deid sailors”, and from that moment, Connolly became one of the key makers of an emerging new Scotland, more witty, less nostalgic, more confident of its place in the world, and not afraid to speak in its own voice. His impact on Scotland’s image of itself was immense, and it’s that impact that playwright and performer Gary McNair sets out to capture in what is essentially a solo show, accompanied live by musician-composers Simon Liddell and Jill O’Sullivan, who provide a steady continuo of sound throughout, sometimes witty and mischievous, sometimes poignant and beautiful.

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So over a moving, fascinating and often hilarious 90 minutes, McNair – an Erskine lad whose physical likeness to the Big Yin has often been noted – performs for us a selection of the Connolly stories of a huge range of ordinary Scots, interviewed up and down the country. There are men who recall his 1960s days as a shipyard worker in Clydebank, and women who claimed to have pushed him in his pram.

And there are many, above all, who try to put into words how Connolly has helped them find a new way of being Scottish, and particularly of being male and Scottish; how to be raised amid violence and punitive forms of religion, and yet to be neither violent nor punitive themselves, but instead to become funny, self-aware, creative, and generous. The story of the Connolly phenomenon, in other words – and of how it much it mattered, in its time – is exactly the kind of tale that our National Theatre must and should be telling, and under Joe Douglas’s generous direction, Gary McNair tells it brilliantly, with huge understanding and love, and that super-sharp sense of mischief without which none of it makes any sense at all.

At the Tron, meanwhile, the much-loved London-based duo Ridiculusmus offer up their latest show, known as Beautiful People, although in fact, its real title is Die! Die! Die! Old People Die! In this 70-minute piece, the duo play a crumbling couple who appear to be attending some kind of celebratory function, but are so ancient that it takes them ten minutes or so to cross the stage to the table where one of them sits, while the other gives a near-incomprehensible speech.

In a sense, this acute, detailed observation of the pain of old age – laced with a continuation determination to find life and humanity “beautiful” – is the heart and soul of the show, and its attempts to do more – for example giving the husband a complex back-story about a wartime gay love-affair – slightly distract from it. As ever, though, Woods and his stage partner Jon Haynes deliver a clever and striking show, full of food for high emotion and deep thought; and if they mean something more than metaphor by suggesting this is the last show they will ever perform, it’s certainly an experience their many fans should not miss, when it tours again in the autumn.

Dear Billy is on tour 24 June; Beautiful People (Die! Die! Die! Old People Die!), run ended