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Edinburgh review: Diary of a Madman (Traverse Theatre)

A searing refashioning of Gogol's short story from Al Smith

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Guy Clark (Matthew White) and Liam Brennan (Pop Sheeran) in Diary of a Madman
(© Iona Firouzabadi)

It's been a good week for fresh interpretations of classic drama. After Simon Stone's vivid reimagining of Yerma at the Young Vic in London, Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre strikes gold with this searing refashioning of Gogol's short story by playwright Al Smith.

In place of a Russian clown, oppressed by his sense of a lack of worth, Smith gives us Pop Sheeran, a man who is following in the family tradition of painting the Forth Bridge. The past matters to Pop - and is literally accreted in the layers of paint with which, like his father before him, he covers the bridge, working from year end to year end and then starting back at the beginning.

But his position is being undermined. A young Englishman - Matt White - son of a knight and scion of the modern age, arrives to test a new paint that means the bridge won't need its annual re-coating. What's more he has designs on the proud Scot's daughter. Then an iPhone app reveals that Sheeran hasn't got much to be proud of anyway; in historical terms he is a serf, not a thane. Worst, he is battling the devil in his blood - a strain of mental illness that has already put his son in hospital.

Christopher Haydon's razor sharp production brings together all these complicated strands of loss and longing, of dislocation and deep desires to belong. The production, a mixture of seriousness and high farce, which includes an appearance by a great, white fluffy version of Greyfriars Bobby, fairly streaks along on Rosanna Vize's effective set, scattered with paint tins.

I liked the way that Smith holds together the genuine humour of the piece with its tilt into tragedy; even in the final scenes, when Sheeran has lost his grip on reality, the play combines jokes about Nicola Sturgeon as a new Scottish hero with the vertiginous sadness of his fall.

The performances are exemplary. Louise McMenemy, as Sheeran's daughter Sophie, and Lois Chimimba as her friend Mel, are a giddy delight as the sharp-talking, clear-eyed teenagers. Deborah Arnott is a calm, reassuring presence as the wife who tries to hold it all together and Guy Clark is just enough out of his depth as the well-spoken English boy.

But it is Liam Brennan as poor, beleaguered Pop who towers over the action, bringing out all the sorrow and sadness of a man out of time, tormented by madness. "I don't want her thinking I'm a nobody," he says, in a terrible cry from the heart, looking at his daughter. In those words he sums up the plight of all those who feel lost and forgotten, trampled in the path of what is known as progress.

Diary of a Madman runs at the Traverse Theatre at various times until 28 August (no Monday performances).

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