Theatre reviews: Maggie & Me | Looking for the One

Maggie & Me is challenging, exasperating, but also highly significant, writes Joyce McMillan

Maggie & Me, Tron Theatre, Glasgow ****

Looking For The One, Oran Mor, Glasgow ****

When I left the stiflingly hot Tron Theatre on Saturday night, I was pretty much in a rage. As a fan of Damian Barr’s superbly-written memoir Maggie & Me – a well-structured page-turner if ever there was one – I found it outrageous that, while employing a production team of 32 people, the National Theatre of Scotland had somehow succeeded in turning this gripping and often horrifying tale of growing up gay in 1980s North Lanarkshire into a slow-moving three-hour salad of repetitive incident, emotion and fantasy that sometimes fails even to deliver the basic facts of the story, except by guesswork and inference.

Maggie & Me PIC: Mihaela BodlovicMaggie & Me PIC: Mihaela Bodlovic
Maggie & Me PIC: Mihaela Bodlovic

Yet here’s the thing; by the time I had reached home, and crawled into bed, this strange and often unsatisfying theatre event had completely invaded my imagination and dreams. When Damian Barr and his co-writer, the playwright James Ley, were working on this stage version of Maggie & Me – alongside director Suba Das – they promised something much more complex than a simple staging of Barr’s book, published in 2013. And that is certainly what they have delivered: a tormented, dream-like meditation on Barr’s continuing story, that revisits both the pain of his childhood, and the agony of reliving it to write the book – and then goes beyond that, into areas of shame, self-questioning, and furtive flirtation with Thatcherism, that even the book hesitates to explore.

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On Ken Macleod’s wildly busy set – Barr’s present-day Brighton study, his home in Newarthill, the local coal bing, the school library, the Carfin Grotto, all punctuated with flickering 1980s television screens offering the national and personal news of the day – all of this is captured with a patchy mix of brilliance and confusion by the show’s remarkable cast of seven, led by Gary Lamont as present-day Damian, Sam Angell as wee Damian, and an impressive Beth Marshall as Margaret Thatcher – a figure vital to Damian’s conviction that individual talent and hard work could help him escape.

And the result is a challenging and sometimes exasperating but, I suspect, highly significant show, that tries to push queer theatre beyond congratulatory cheer-leading over recent stories of liberation – important though those are – towards a continuing confrontation with the psychological and social forces, internal and external, that could still rise up again, to reverse those gains.

If finding a partner with whom he could rebuild his life has been vital to Damian Barr’s story, then Sylvia Dow’s gorgeous light-touch mini-musical Looking For The One revolves around three characters nursing the same hope in 2020s Glasgow. Thirtysomething Gav, who works in product marketing, is a young and personable gay bloke; fiftyish Flora, a harassed English teacher with a dependent old mother at home, and sixty-something Jack, a computer science lecturer beset by shyness.

What’s joyous about Dow’s play, though – deftly directed by Shilpa T-Hyland – is the situation is really little more than a peg on which to hang some gloriously sharp-edged observation of the absurdities and irritations of our 21st century world, all summed up in half-a-dozen witty and sometimes touching songs with music by Kim Edgar. Fletcher Mathers and Alan McHugh turn in superb performances as Flora and Jack, funny, melancholy, and beautifully sung; Alan Mackenzie offers strong support as Gav. And if Dow finally treats her own plot-line as something of a joke, that only reinforces the point; that what matters here is not so much the story, as the gentle, humorous and lethally perceptive way she tells it.

Maggie & Me is on tour until 15 June, with dates in Perth, Cumbernauld, Dundee and Edinburgh - see Looking For The One at the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, 14-18 May.

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