This’ll burst your Fringe bubble. Al Smith takes us nine miles west in his update of Nikolai Gogol’s classic short story, to the rust red of the Forth Bridge. Pen-pushing Poprishchin has become Pop Sheeran, a modest family man in a long line of work: repainting the steel cantilevers year in, year out. It’s an old colloquialism for a never-ending task: apply the last stroke of one coat, then the first of the next.
Even in his high-vis overalls, Pop Sheeran is invisible – both politically, having never voted in his life, and practically. You’d notice if he weren’t there, but he’s a symbol of quiet continuity: a worker who keeps things working. At home, his wife Mavra takes on his upkeep in turn; cooking for when he comes home, shaving him when his hands start to shake.
He’s joined at the bridge by Matt White (wahey!), a stick-thin material science grad on work experience for the summer. He’s rented his flat for the festival, climbs for leisure and knows the science of paint, not the feel of it. Worse, he’s an Englishman – and an old Harrovian at that. Worse still, he’s started seeing Pop’s daughter, Sophie. And all just as the bridge’s Qatari owners want to apply a new, durable paint that’ll last half a century. Enough to make anyone flip.
This is a total overhaul of the original, in which Poprishchin goes mad with love, but still totally true to it. It’s as if Smith snorted a line of Gogol and wrote a new play under the influence. The core myth’s still visible, a man out of sync with society, pinned in his place, but it’s entirely transfigured for our times: a story of globalisation, mechanisation and identity crises. As Pop goes on, he succumbs to the same frazzled lunacy, convinced he’s conversant with Greyfriar’s Bobby. Like Poprishchin, he slips out of time and out of himself.
Smith provides a clear-sighted picture of where we are now, sewing together significant contemporary concerns that are usually handled alone: generational clashes, class, the crisis of masculinity and mental health. They all come together in Pop Sheeran. Globalisation rips up our roots and technology overturns our traditions. With them goes our sense of self, and that’s when people break down.
Yet for all the ideas layered up like licks of paint, it’s the characters you care about. Smith’s careful with his story, stitching his ideas to specifics, and Liam Brennan’s superb as Pop: a fine soul in a weathered body. Where Guy Clark’s student is a processing unit, Brennan’s always physical: an accumulation of aches and pains, but still he kneads the paint out of his antique brushes at the end of each day. There’s a quiet beauty in his pride. To watch it disintegrate is a saddening thing.
At the same time, Smith writes family tensions beautifully, so that individual aspirations pull the unit apart. His 17 year olds know their own minds, and Louise McMenemy’s Sophie is determined to go to an English uni and shag an Englishman – no matter that both tear her da to pieces. It’s her life, but she can’t fully understand her impact on him. As Mavra, Deborah Arnott is caught between what’s best for both of them. Such are the agonies of love.
Rob Drummond offers a more positive view of it. For his new show, In Fidelity, the Scottish theatremaker has turned Cupid. Like Cilla and Paddy and that impossibly French maître d’, Our Robert is setting up singletons on their very first date. Live. Onstage. Every night.
That’s an anxiety dream, right? Awkward small talk and flickering flirtation in front of a hundred strangers. I’m fine on my own, thanks. Drummond takes care of his charges, offering structure and support, and maybe, just maybe, some might get it on. The stage ups defences though, and tonight’s loveseekers put up more front than a Naked Attraction box set. Maybe that’s just how first dates go.
Forget love though, this is all in the name of science. Drummond seeks to unpick dates with data, reducing the heart’s desires to psychology and chemicals, neurology and evolution – most of which you likely know already. Love’s a survival strategy, but so, Drummond discovers, is infidelity. We are a species of cheaters, programmed to play away.
Happily married, Drummond set himself up on a dating site as, er, research. It’s fine, he told his wife. But when the matches started a-matching and the suitors a-messaging, he couldn’t help but click. Might the grass be greener or younger or hotter?
It’s fun, but it’s frivolous, and Drummond never pushes his television format past itself. Whether sparks fly or not, In Fidelity hasn’t the livewire danger of Drummond’s past work. Likey, but lighty.