Theatre reviews: Joke | Spuds

Johnny McKnight’s new workplace drama Joke plays powerfully with our “political correctness gone too far” reflexes, writes Joyce McMillan, while at the same time telling some important home truths about the sources of racism in our society
Michael Guest, Laura Lovemore and Ewan Miller in Joke PIC: Leslie BlackMichael Guest, Laura Lovemore and Ewan Miller in Joke PIC: Leslie Black
Michael Guest, Laura Lovemore and Ewan Miller in Joke PIC: Leslie Black

Joke, Oran Mor, Glasgow *****

Spuds, Gaiety Theatre, Ayr ****

It’s been a traumatic 18 months; but to judge by the creative momentum behind the new autumn season at A Play, A Pie, And A Pint in Glasgow, the pandemic has only added more fuel to Scotland’s weekly powerhouse of brand new playmaking. The season started well, with Morna Pearson’s Celestial Body and Lorna Martin’s Rose, about the great Scottish footballer Rose Reilly; and now comes a new play by Glasgow-based panto dame and renaissance man Johnny McKnight that raises the season to a whole new level, with a sharp, brilliant and beautifully constructed workplace comedy about some of the key dilemmas of the age.

Joke is set in the office of works manager Andy, the posh but nervy younger son of the wealthy family who own the company. On the wall is a poster proclaiming that this is a “safe” workplace, where employees can feel protected from all forms of harassment and hate speech; although when contract worker Jordan is called up from the shop floor for a meeting, it’s quite obvious that the one thing he is not “safe” from is the ever-present threat of redundancy. Jordan has allegedly made a racist remark on the shop floor; and for a while, McKnight plays powerfully with our “political correctness gone too far” reflexes, demonstrating how the newish concept of “safe spaces” can be used by management to bully those who are not fully up to speed on the latest rules of acceptable speech.

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What’s remarkable about McKnight’s play, though, is the skill and force with which he then twists the tale towards a completely different perspective, forcing us to face up both to the horrific nastiness of the “joke” in question, and to some home truths about the most powerful source of racism in our society. I have to say I was slightly alarmed by the rousing round of applause that greeted Andy’s final fascistic rant; but let's hope that it was only directed at the bravura excellence of Michael Guest’s performance, alongside Ewan Miller as Jordan and Laura Lovemore as his fiancee Lorraine, in a riveting production by new Play, Pie And Pint boss Jemima Levick of a play as breathlessly quick-witted as it is hard-hitting and significant.

Joke is a Play, Pie and Pint hit that deserves the widest possible audience across Scotland and beyond; and so, back in 2017, was Andy McGregor’s pacey and surreal musical Spuds, now on tour around Scotland. Spuds tells the tale of a failed shopkeeper called David, whose affluent Glasgow West End life falls apart when his relatively high-earning wife drops dead. He soon discovers a new vocation, though, in flogging to the masses a hallucinogenic brand of orange chip which he discovers by chance one drunken night, made from a unique combination of cheap own-brand Irn Bru substitute, and potatoes fried in the truly filthy fryers of local chip-shop owner Toni.

It’s an absurd tale, no question; but McGregor sustains it with such an avalanche of musical invention and energy – all hammered out on an onstage keyboard by musical director Gavin Whitworth – that it carries the audience along for an almost effortless 65 minutes. There is a slight loss of impetus in the last couple of scenes, as McGregor opts for a pitch-dark ending that seems a shade out of key. Yet with Richard Conlon as David and Ewan Somers and Joanne McGuinness as a whole gallery of other characters, all singing superbly, and sustaining the drama with terrific flair, Spuds offers the kind of brief but exhilarating good night out we could all use a little more of, as we face up to the winter to come.

Joke is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until 25 September. Spuds is on tour to the Macrobert, Stirling, 25 September; the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, 28 September; Eastwood Park Theatre, 1 October, and Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh, 2 October.

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