As a small-town teenager living by one of Scotland's suicide hotspots, Gary McNair struck up a correspondence with Morrissey. McNair's psychiatrist suggested finding a confidente. He looked around and chose The Smiths singer, though Morrissey never wrote back. He was, rather, a repository for all those doubts and fears that buzz around teenage heads. Each missive was signed, The Boy With The Thorn In His Side.
Those letters let us into McNair's teenage life in this meditative solo show. He was a gawky adolescent with "Mick Hucknall hair"; a social introvert sat in front of the school psychiatrist terrified of being outed as a bedwetter. The letters anchor the story of his fandom – from the thrill of finding a voice that seems to directly speak to and for you, to the emotional overload of seeing your superhero live in the flesh. It is the story of an ordinary boy and an extraordinary icon; the closeness between them, but the distance as well.
Letters to Morrissey is, at one level, another piece of fan mail. McNair captures just what makes – or rather, what made – Morrissey so alluring. You see the singer through his adoring eyes: this beautiful, fey young man, still masculine, still tough. The show's a fine piece of pop criticism; an examination of Morrissey as a role model – working class anti-hero, pub corner poet, a different sort of male role model.
Back then, Morrissey was his contradictions and McNair stands before two portraits that suggest as much. In one, Morrissey poses with tulips and a wistful, distant stare. In the other, he eyes the camera, exposes his midriff and smiles an unpredictable, punkish smile. McNair's T-shirt sums him up: "Be Kind to Animals or I'll Kill You." Morrissey. He was – is – "all things to all people" and McNair unpicks the way we project ourselves onto our pop heroes. They are blank canvases, places to stores all our hopes and our fears.
From that Letters extrapolates to consider masculinity. McNair populates the piece with a plethora of men. Kyle McNaughton, the school psycho with his own slang and fists that made themselves understood; Jan the Lesbian, a local trans woman who offered sage advice; his tortured friend Tony, exiled over rumours he shoved his mum down the stairs.
McNair's focus is, in part, on aging. Morrissey has, famously, mutated from an idealistic young man to a grumbling old codger. That change is part of how we perceive him today and, in looking back to his teenage self, soft-skinned and semi-permeable as he was, McNair invites us to see him as a changed man as well. He has hardened into an adult – found his voice, lost his naivety. Which of us hasn't? You live, you love, you lose. What? Innocence? Openness? Hope?
It's no coincidence that Letters returns to that suicide hotspot. Young men kill themselves in their droves today, unable to live up to their idols perhaps, but equally unable to talk. McNair's missives weren't the solution, they were a symptom.
Letters to Morrissey, Traverse Theatre, until 27 August, times vary. It then runs at HOME Manchester from 12 to 16 September.