Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Diary of a Madman

Al Smith
Gate Theatre
Gate Theatre

Guy Clark and Liam Brennan Credit: Iona Firouzabadi
Liam Brennan and Deborah Arnott Credit: Iona Firouzabadi
Lois Chimimba and Louise McMenemy Credit: Iona Firouzabadi

Al Smith has a very negative satiric point to make about Scottish Nationalism in his entertaining oddity Diary of a Madman. That point really only emerges later in the play when things lurch into a Spitting Image style horror sequence. Before that, for over two thirds of the show we are treated to some incredibly amusing dialogue in what appears to be simply an improbable situation comedy.

The character Pop Sheeran (Liam Brennan) has spent many years painting the Forth Road Bridge: "in the hundred years she’s been standing there hasn’t been a moment without a Sheeran man or boy hanging from the rig."

The PhD student Matt White (Guy Clark), the son of an Englishman knighted by the Queen and formally from Harrow School, arrives for a summer job painting the bridge. Although he lives only twenty minutes by train from his home in Edinburgh, he agrees to lodge at the Sheehan’s home where he recognises the daughter Sophie (Louise McMenemy) as someone he slept with.

The growing affection between Matt and Sophie, along with the looming prospect of a more enduring paint removing the need for his job, triggers in Sheeran a deranged crises of masculinity in which he believes himself to be the national hero William Wallace or at least the Mel Gibson version defending Scotland from English rule.

Television executives watching the first two thirds of this play might be salivating at the prospect of hiring Al Smith to write a two-series comedy. The dialogue is fast and witty. The characters bounce off each other in a way that makes even the slightest gesture funny. Those TV executives will also certainly want to keep the existing cast whose performances are always strong and convincing.

However all that is before they have seen the final section of the play when the laughter stops and you sit on the edge of your seat worrying if this satiric father of Scotland Pop Sheeran is going to stab someone with a very sharp, long screwdriver. That section will surely have those executives running for the hills clutching their money tightly to their chests.

There is a late scene in which the satire is at its most obvious. A young woman dressed as First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon with a toy sword fences with another woman dressed as Mel Gibson’s Braveheart carrying a huge inflatable penis.

Standing alongside them is the rational and gentle upper class English student Matt dressed as a fluffy Greyfriars Bobby, the loyal dog that spent fourteen years sitting by the grave of his master. Presumably, we are to understand that the loyal and gentle friend England has spent many years waiting for the deranged Scots to get real.

The politics of the play might appeal as a short cartoon sketch for a late-night party at David Cameron’s home, but they certainly don’t count as a serious view of Scottish politics.

Nevertheless, the show holds your attention and you will be laughing for a good two thirds of its hundred-minute running time. Afterwards, you might even tell your friends you saw a great play, as long as they don’t ask you to tell them what the hell was going on.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna