Diary of a Madman
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Al Smith's slightly perplexing Scottish rewriting of Gogol's classic
This extremely loose adaptation of Gogol’s classic short story is so different from the original that it’s something of a distraction that writer Al Smith has even held on to the title (for starters, there’s no actual diary).
Moving the story to present-day Edinburgh, Smith’s take doesn’t exactly have a lead character, but Poprishchin – Gogol’s civil servant protagonist, disintegrating under the indignities of repressive Russia – is wittily replaced by Pop Sheeran, patriarch of the Sheerans, whose family business has been responsible for painting the Forth Rail Bridge for generations.
At first, he’s a peripheral presence in an unfolding domestic drama. His daughter Sophie (Louise McMenemy) and her best friend Mel (Lois Chimimba) are two lairy 17-year-old best friends. Sophie recently got off with a student, but – uh-oh! – it turns out that Matthew (Guy Clark), the posh English guy who has just started as an apprentice to her dad, is that student.
McMenemy and Chimimba are tremendous fun, and spark nicely off the odd but likeable Clark – their scenes are all a joy.
But Pop’s encroaching problems are a curious thing: there is talk of a family curse, and he takes medication to keep some sort of unspecified mental health problem in check. His disintegration seems to be presented as an allegory for Scotland’s own insecurities: he becomes obsessed with the question of whether or not he has noble Scots blood and talks incessantly about the film ‘Braveheart’. Inevitably, he becomes increasingly suspicious of Matthew, who is guilty of the triple crime of boffing his daughter, being English, and advocating radical new bridge-painting techniques. It’s certainly interesting, but whereas Gogol was viciously skewering contemporary Russian society, I’m not sure whether, as a non-Scot, I’ve ever seen obsession with the past as a destructive Scottish malaise.
Director Christopher Haydon does a solid job, but doesn’t really reconcile the raucous bits of the play with the darker stuff, and it’s tonally inconsistent to the end, its dark and light strands eventually meeting in a pretty anticlimatic way