Theatre review: Smile, Dundee Rep

“NOT FOOTBALL, fitba’. Scottish version. And that’s not a game, it’s an obsession.” So says Philip Differ’s stage version of legendary Dundee United manager Jim McLean, near the beginning of this 60-minute dialogue between McLean and an everyman character – deftly played by Chris Alexander – who represents everyone from the players McLean frightened and cajoled into world-class performances, to the fans who sang “There’s only one Jim McLean” during his glory years at Tannadice, from 1972 to 1993.

Barrie Hunter’s performance as the legendary Jim McLean is remarkable: subtle and moving
Barrie Hunter’s performance as the legendary Jim McLean is remarkable: subtle and moving

Smile, Dundee Rep ****

The point of Differ’s short play is to show how that Scottish male obsession with football played out in the life of a man, born in Lanarkshire in 1937, who, after a decent career as a player in the 1960s, eventually joined the pantheon of great Scottish football managers; and its title is ironic, given that McLean famously cultivated a grumpy and aggressive public image.

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One of Differ’s aims, though – beautifully fulfilled in Barrie Hunter’s remarkable and moving central performance – is to show how McLean’s public persona was partly a mask designed to veil his personal shyness and uncertainty, and partly a reflection of the intense competitive attitude, and burning need to win on match day, that drove his career as a manager. In Sally Reid’s sensitive production, both Differ’s script and Hunter’s performance show terrific subtlety in capturing McLean’s intelligence, his aggressive determination, his intensely private inner life, and his sharp, sometimes self-deprecating wit; and if Kenny Miller’s soaring dusty-grey ruin of a set – like the underside of a dismantled stadium – is sometimes a shade distracting, there are moments when it makes sense, as McLean stamps around deploying the carpentry skills he learned as a teenage apprentice on the odd broken Tannadice doorknob.

Smile is a brief play that perhaps raises more questions than it can answer about the role football plays in the lives of so many Scottish men, the passions it arouses in those with a real gift for the game, and its ongoing impact on Scottish society and gender politics – a theme memorably tackled 40 years ago in Paul Pender’s play The Game. If Differ’s play cannot explore these issues in full, though, it certainly flags them up, with impressive intelligence and humour; and it’s graced with a central performance that captures a unique and yet archetypal Scotsman of his time with an accuracy and affection that delights the Dundee audience, who, when McLean declares that he was born in Lanarkshire, but made in Dundee, can hardly resist bursting into spontaneous applause – even though that means interrupting the great man, in mid-speech.

JOYCE MCMILLAN

Until 7 March