Diary of a Madman

Little remains of Gogol’s original short story, Diary of a Madman, with Al Smith taking much artistic licence in updating it to post-Brexit Britain and turning it into a story of nationalism and traditional values in an increasingly modernised and globalised world. Instead of an underachieving and unloved civil servant, Smith’s ‘Madman’ is a painter for the Forth Rail Bridge named Pops Sheeran (Liam Brennan) whose life is turned upside down by the arrival of Matthew (Guy Clark), a student from the University of Edinburgh, sent to test new paint that’ll cost Pops his livelihood and much more. It’s brimming with questions and ideas about class, generation gaps and national identity (to name but a few), but it’s also remarkably funny.

It’s an urgently needed show that may not answer all our questions, but certainly asks the right ones.

Smith, and director Christopher Haydon, skilfully let the social interactions between Matthew and the working class Sheeran family play out, letting the comedy emerge naturally as the social divide becomes increasingly obvious, and Pops’s world gradually collapses. Brennan delivers a barnstorming performance as the tragic Pops, going mad as he stays the same, using the same paint and paintbrushes as his father, in a world that seems obsessed with modernising. A special mention must also go out to Louise McMenemy as Pops’s teenage daughter, Sophie, and Lois Chimimba as her friend, Mel for their terrific comic performances as two girls who feel the world has nothing to offer them. This is a timely piece of work that slides from comedy to tragedy seamlessly, and simply offers a portrait of where we are as a country right now, rather than attempting to offer any easy answers.

The only issue with Diary of a Madman is that it runs the risk of conflating madness with Pops’ nationalism. By labelling Pops as the titular “Madman” for holding on to his traditional, old-fashioned values, one has to wonder if the production actually serves to give a voice to a whole section of society that feels they’ve been let down and left behind. It’s a tricky question, and each person will naturally have different responses, but no one can deny the bravery of the Gate and Traverse Theatre’s decision in asking these questions in the first place. It’s an urgently needed show that may not answer all our questions, but certainly asks the right ones.

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Performances

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The Blurb

Pop Sheeran, proudly shouldering the family trade of restoring the Forth Bridge, is about to lose it all. A global corporation has bought this Scottish icon, bringing with them innovative new paint. How will Pop fight back when he realises he’s painting himself out of a job? The company behind the two Fringe First-winning smash hits Grounded, ***** (Scotsman) and The Christians **** (Scotsman), return to the Traverse with a brand new adaptation of Gogol’s classic story, reimagined in contemporary Scotland. Christopher Haydon directs the world premiere of this sharply political, witty play by Al Smith.

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