My Old Man

Tom McGrath
Magnetic North Theatre Company
Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
(2005)

Frank Kelly as Sam (photo by Kevin Low)

Tom McGrath's new play is a melancholic rumination on family, age, death, and self-destruction. The old man of the title is Sam (Frank Kelly), who suffers a severe stroke just before the action of the play begins. This requires him to move in with his estranged daughter Rhona (Anne Marie Timoney) and her renegade son Neil (Alan Tripney).

The cross-generational conflicts that ensue upon his arrival inflict on the audience ranging from sympathy to shame to desperation.

The play opens slowly, provoking dubious interest from audience members. It's when Sam finally arrives at Rhona's that matters take flight and one can really begin to get emotionally involved.

McGrath evidences a keen understanding of all three of his central characters, despite their diverse ages and genders. While both Kelly and Timoney give strong, multi-layered performances, it is the younger Tripney who really wows as Neil. His pot smoking, dope-dealing disaffected wannabe neo-nazi is nonetheless so clearly out of his depth when it comes to real emotional engagement, and so hungry to make such connections, that one cannot help but find him sympathetic despite his many faults.

McGrath's understanding also shows in both of the play's parent/child relationships. While Rhona and Neil may argue, their tough-love approach to one another never falters, and despite the anger and bitterness between Rhona and her father it's clear they can only hurt one another so deeply because they both so clearly wish their relationship had been more positive. When it finally does explode, it's over their conflicting methods to achieve the same goal - the happiness of the next generation.

The play is littered with moments both painful and illuminating, presenting each generation's view of the next - a phenomenon which was particularly interesting given the diverse ages of the audience. Within moments, we hear both Neil's perspective on his grandfather, then it's rapidly followed by Sam's view of the younger man. Rhona, as the lone female and the only person directly related to both of the other men, faces a constant struggle to express herself while still being the pillar of the family; it's a struggle which Timoney portrays well.

There are a few incongruous elements in My Old Man, mostly in the second act. Heroin addiction, a bizarrely stilted affair that never gets properly explained, and the sudden introduction of sentimentalized artefacts from the past seem not to quite belong.

Despite this, My Old Man is a power- and meaningfull addition to the modern canon of Scottish theatre. Nicholas Bone's direction takes advantage of the building intensity of the piece, and the design by Minty Donald highlights the fragmented nature of Sam's life after his stroke.

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Reviewer: Rachel Lynn Brody