The revival of this short and punchy play reflects not only the time in which it was written but also shines a light on the fall-out of the heady 1980s. Revived and directed by Liz Carruthers, she weaves the threads of loss and memory together. It was penned by a young and effervescent John McKay with all the fizz and bravura of an innocent abroad, as a scatter gun of scenes, gruff reflections, and snappy one-liners, albeit less funny today than they were 40 years ago. And yet, it is a play that is more than the sum of its parts as it throws focus amidst the social noise of the time and a struggling generation of men in Scotland, seemingly both in denial.
Denial in a country of talent, denial of class, of money, of aspiration and crucially denial of emotion. McKay gives us surface, almost a sit-com’ range of settings, with the bathroom, the bar, the bus and if we were in any way unsure of the focus, up come the setting titles, the midnight walk, the lumber, the museum – clearly two characters in search of an identity for sure, moping for what is – or is not.
The simple staging, with a backdrop of 80’s band and political posters hums with change along with opening soundtracks of the Eurythmics and Soft Cell, indicating what we were about to witness perhaps? ‘Sweet dreams are made of this’ and ‘Tainted Love’ leads us into the room of the optimistic young Eck, played with a touching confused sensitivity by Angus Miller, imagining the possibilities of a new world, should his BBC interview go well.
It would appear talent has rushed south along with hope but anyone with a Scottish heart has stayed and has not been tempted by the promises of Thatcher’s new world where everything is up for grabs. McKay’s sharp barbs about the English abound, and Scottish identity is under the cosh, where even speaking clearly seems to suggest a betrayal of sorts. Looking back, you can appreciate where McKay is coming from, with unemployment, privatisations, the union bashing, all socially destabilising and London was often the dark and exciting void into which those who might forge ahead were drawn. Now, we know most of those dreams were tainted and McKay’s play gives a certain resonance to those unsettling times.
The social and emotional commentary of the piece is driven by the arrival of Eck’s dad – dead of course! His presence amusingly helps and hinders any chance of Eck getting on and the quixotic delivery of Liam Brennan as the dad is bold, controlled and at times shabbily complex. He captures the father and son relationship with an emotional distance that suggests it is almost too late to bridge; sentimental instead of practical, self-absorbed, instead of self-aware as he snatches at memories that never were. He reminds Eck of what it was like being a wee boy with his da’ and remonstrating, Eck tells him the truth, dad was grumpy, distant, and absent. He is to his son what Scotland seems to be to its people, because of class, education, faith, and expectation. McKay’s writing is in safe hands with the talented Brennan. It is both amusing and alarming when, as the dad (having bantered about how well his son was speaking at the Beeb interview) reminds him that he is not working class as he had voted Tory at the last election, giving us some context of the reach of Thatcher’s politics.
It seems somewhat of a slight play now that hints of the turbulent social upheaval that was to come. However, it does suggest a growing confidence in men, culture and identity – ‘maybe’ – and it is supported with a clever structure that offers quick fired entertaining scenes that leave you with deeper thoughts to ponder on. Moments of togetherness between father and son are, at times, palpable. Dad almost seems to be on Eck’s back, as they squeeze through the party crowd, carried, or guided? – we’re not sure – or when he reads his paper in the bathroom as Eck has his bath. It’s a funny fusion of time and for a moment the glib, along with the glee almost galvanises them into some meaningful communication – and then we must catch ourselves and remember, dad is dead, so, maybe, do not deny not the moment for sweet dreams to come true.
Presented by Old School and Stories Untold Productions in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre.