Maggie and Me

Damian Barr and James Lay
National Theatre of Scotland
Tron Theatre

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Young and old DB Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic
Initiation into "the scene" Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic
Thatcher intervenes Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic

Adapted from his own novel, which has had wide and deserved praise, this is a distinctly theatrical version of Damian Barr growing up in 1980s Scotland, specifically Lanarkshire. Delivered in a new medium rather than to a new audience, it charts his story as he attempts to survive the twin efforts of his home life and school to destroy his identity: the former by default and the latter by design. There is little new here, though it does have a sparkling creative impetus, given its highly theatrical staging which marks it out as being a story, somewhat told, but needing constant retelling.

His backstory begins in primary school as Barr (DB) emerges from the divorce of his parents into a world of divisive and divided parents, dividing and unreconstructed new stepparents, sexual awakening and his own emergence. At the time, there was a dominant force within politics—Margaret Thatcher—who makes an appearance in an imaginary conceit which allows the theatricality of the approach full sway.

That conceit sees Barr, as an adult, struggling over the commission to write his memoir but finding he is unable to escape the cliché-ridden prose he pens. Whilst his agent is frantically finding excuses for him missing deadlines, Barr, in his writing shed, finds purpose and success through the device of reliving his experiences. He sets out, no matter how painfully, to set his creativity free. And so, he relives them. By doing so, we are taken along that journey, through Lanarkshire and Glasgow’s hot spots and dens of inequality.

There are painful episodes—losing a close friend in Mark, a bullying and abusive stepfather, an unsympathetic stepmother and how both he and Mark get an introduction to “the scene”—as well as life-affirming moments, when Mark, Heather and DB find their scene, the story of how two social outcasts form a heterosexual affair to keep both safe from the catcalls of pain and allow their collective blossoming. It allows adult Heather to bring an album of memories to spark off reflections without fear of sparking negative processes.

The production is performed with a multitude of multimedia interactions, which include live filming, broadcast on a variety of TVs onstage and recorded broadcasts which fill in the backdrop of the devastation brought about to the area from the shutting of the Craig—Ravenscraig.

Added to this theatrical wizardry, the set is magnificently revealed, from a bookshelf-enclosed writing space to having brilliant backdrops from the religious, the industrial and the personally significant wardrobe—into which young DB was thrust before being sent down the side of a bing. It all adds immeasurably to the narrative.

Structurally, the material has been redeveloped into theatre with a climax which heightens the overall message, foreshadowed throughout, leaving this final piece of the jigsaw, which makes the picture whole. It’s not bold, it’s not cosy, it’s not wholesome, and there is still a hell of a lot of work still to be done.

The performances of this ensemble cast, most of whom are playing multiple parts, is of pinpoint accuracy. Mum is instantly recognisable, and Thatcher has the voice, exhibits the mannerisms and brings all the prejudice you expect of her old self. It is a marvellous portrayal, if not a marvel to be reminded of her.

The interplay between young and old DB is centrally, however, what gives tonal value and pace. Here both Sam Angell and Gary Lamont shine brightly. That’s not to say there are no other performances of equal strength: Douglas Rankine, Joanne Thomson, Grant McIntyre, Beth Marshall and Nicola Jo Cully deserve praise, and whilst dad, mum, and Mark shine, they have less opportunity to develop their stage presence, but there is clearly an understanding of making each character more than a cipher.

Mum in particular has plenty of moments of real hubris and warmth under the bombastic approach to life she clearly had. It’s lazy to suggest she is simply symbolic. For she is. Symbolic of a type of working class woman who needs to survive for the love of her children. Against odds stacked against them, she represents a response, a woman and I have met her, met countless versions of her, but she is not the only type of working-class woman who had to fight. And so, she is authentic and symbolic of herself.

As the audience rose at the end to show their appreciation, the people in the auditorium seemed to include many who have suffered similar experiences or who need to see and hear of them to validate themselves. To convince the rest of the population, there may need to be different stories to be told, however, there are so many examples of all minority communities emerging from their despondency that indulging a little in hearing again how hard it was to be yourself in decades in which I was growing up too has plenty of merit.

Of the many people who came out as gay with whom I was at university in the early '80s, none of them did so whilst at university. Such was their oppression and therefore the oppression that I must have endorsed without realising it. It might not have led me to tune into Eurovision at the weekend, but it did at least make me pause for thought.

Reviewer: Donald C Stewart

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