Writer: Al Smith
Director: Christopher Haydon
Reviewer: Fergus Morgan
Al Smith’s Diary Of A Madman is arguably the cherry on the top of the Traverse Theatre’s Fringe. Staged in conjunction with Notting Hill’s Gate Theatre, this loose adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s 1835 short story is sublimely topical, burning with a potent cocktail of caustic humour and socio-political anger and boasting a powerhouse of a central performance from Liam Brennan.
Brennan is Pop Sheeran (a sly update of Gogol’s Poprishchin), a middle-aged Scot from South Queensferry, tasked with the parabolic duty of painting the Forth Bridge, just like his father before him, and his father before him. When an earnest, privately-educated English student (Guy Clark) arrives in order to try out a new, long-lasting paint for the bridge’s new Arabic owners, Sheeran finds himself struggling to cling on to his job, his family, his way of life, and his sanity.
Smith’s is a play steeped in Scottish history. Like Johnny Byron in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, Sheeran is presented as the last scion of a mythical heritage, stretching back into the misty medieval days of Thanes and Lairds. He is an analogue man without a role in a digital, globalised world, confused by smartphones, obsessed with respect, and entirely defined by his traditions. “My father had his songs, he remembered his history and that lifted him out of nothing”, he muses. “What am I without that?”
And Brennan funnels this confused mix of patriotism and tribalism into his Sheeran in a superbly measured performance. He is the Eddie Carbone of South Queensferry (A View From The Bridge would have served Smith well as a title had Miller not got there first), certain of his values, exasperated by his powerlessness, and fiercely protective of his temple even as it crashes around him.
Brennan is well supported by Deborah Arnott as Sheeran’s pacifying wife, and by Louise McMenemy as his strident, sarky daughter Sophie. There is fine work too from Lois Chimba as Sophie’s hard-nosed best mate, and from Clark as the prim and proper engineering student, carefully minding his Ps and Qs as he unwittingly invades Sheeran’s household. Christopher Haydon directs with astute flair on Rosanna Vize’s luridly paint-splattered set.
At a time when Scotland, together with the rest of post-Britain, crackles with a newly resurgent nationalist mythology, and when society is divided between those swept up by globalisation and those swept away by it, it is difficult to imagine a play as important – or as rewarding – as Smith’s.
Runs until 28August 2016 | Image:Iona Firouzabadi