On stage in Kenny Miller’s multi-level design, there are three New York apartments, from deep urban Manhattan to gentrified Washington Heights; and in them – but always on the edge of chaos – live the five characters in New York playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’s 2011 play The Motherf***er With The Hat, now given its Scottish and Welsh premieres in this new co-production between the Tron Theatre, and the Sherman, Cardiff.
Tron, Glasgow **** | Oran Mor, Glasgow *** | Playhouse, Edinburgh ****
At the centre of the story stands Jackie, a young felon on parole who has to stay out of trouble, keep attending meetings with his sponsor (recovered alcoholic Ralph D), and try to make a go of things with his gorgeous coke-sniffing girlfriend, Veronica. His progress shudders to a halt, though, when he comes home to find another man’s hat sitting on the table in Veronica’s apartment; and from there on, it’s all guns and baseball bats, escalating threats of violence, and ever more convoluted tales of sex, lies and cheating, involving not only the central triangle of Jackie, Veronica and Ralph D, but also Ralph’s unhappy wife Victoria, and Jackie’s cousin Julio, a peaceful, gym-trained giant who nonetheless insists that he will be a Van Damme-style terminator to anyone who hurts his cousin.
In truth, there’s something about Andy Arnold’s production that seems a little more like a movie than a live play; it’s a strikingly self-contained show, that feels as though it has been jetted in from elsewhere, like a can of celluloid. Yet towards the end, when the play tightens its focus on Jackie and Ronnie’s tragic inability to trust and love one another enough to make a future, it suddenly reaches out to take a fierce grip on the heart; and Alexandria Riley as Veronica, and Francois Pandolfo as Jackie, deliver a downbeat closing scene that’s richly worth waiting for, with both characters determined not to succumb to the many forms of urban bullshit that surround them, whether it’s old-fashioned macho revenge culture, the shallow new-age mantras that often replace it, or just the age-old lies of a man who wants to own you, and keeps calling it love.
The latest lunchtime show in the Play, Pie And Pint season, written by Scottish actor and emerging playwright Taqi Nazeer, is also a tale of the rocky road to love in a modern urban setting; but here, the city is Glasgow, and the protagonists, Zahra and Niyal, are modern-minded young Muslims both of whom have decided, for different reasons, to give the old-fashioned idea of arranged a marriage a chance. In a sense, it’s a classic rom-com plot, as two people thrown together by chance rather than choice discover they have more in common than they imagined.
Yet Nazeer’s writing also shows a hard edge of understanding about just how harshly family pressures can bear down on young British-Asian people who want to live differently; and although Maryam Hamidi’s production looked a shade hesitant and under-rehearsed at Oran Mor on Monday, three heartfelt and humorous performances from Mandy Bhari as Zahra, Paul Chaal as her gay friend Bally, and Taqi Nazeer himself as Niyal, help to keep the show on track, as a vital contribution to the debate about how young people live now in the fast-changing cities of the west, and how they find something around which they can build their lives, whether they call it love or not.
At the Playhouse, meanwhile, Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson’s much-loved touring production of Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers makes another visit to Edinburgh, this time with the lovely Lyn Paul in the central role of Mrs Johnstone. It’s a very different kind of city that features in this Liverpool tale of the 1980s; a postwar one in which all other differences pale into insignificance beside the great divide of money and class which separates the Johnstone twins, one of them given away at birth. Yet the brilliant theatrical flow and energy of this great Kenwright production remains as irresistible as ever; and Lyn Paul’s wonderful voice soars through it all, singing out the joy and pain of mother-love with a passion that seems right for this Mother’s Day weekend, and absolutely compelling, always.
The Motherf***er With The Hat, at Tron Theatre until 17 March. Blood Brothers at the Playhouse and Rishta at Oran Mor, final performances today.