McGonagall’s Chronicles (which will be remembered for a very long time)

Play at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh 5 – 15 December 2018. Written and performed by Gary McNair with Simon Liddell (Composer / Musician) and Brian James O’Sullivan (musician / Chorus. Directed by Joe Douglas and co-directed by Tomaz Krajnc. 

Writer and performer Gary McNair couldn’t believe his ears when his friend introduced him to the poetry of William Topaz McGonagall. He found the work ‘so terribly bad’ that he was drawn to examine why McGonagall is well known 125 years later. ‘Who was this guy?’, he asked, ‘Was he meant to be this bad?’ This way the show McGonagall’s Chronicles was born.

McNair has taken a poet who is pilloried and vilified and written a script using the same declamatory, clunky and ‘abominable’ style but in a more adroit and knowingly comical way. With awards tucked into his belt (Fringe First 2018), and together with Simon Liddell (Composer / Musician) and principal on-stage side-kick Brian James O’Sullivan, musician and Chorus, he has created a one hour touring show which tells the story of McGonagall’s life in often ridiculous rhyming verse. We learn about the very tough trajectory of this self-made man who had endless determination and apparently unwavering self-belief. Somehow McNair manages to elicit sympathy for this most hard-skinned of men.

Using a form which would be recognised in the 19th century theatre of McGonagal”s day, there is a tight structure. He remains true to the metre and doggerell of McGonagall, and performs in a flamboyant style which is thirds panto, music hall and stand-up. The text contains references to the nursery rhymes of the times: ‘bonnie and gay’, ‘nimble and quick’, but there are also contemporary metaphors, ‘He was bound to be as popular as Game of Thrones’. It is not pure drama – there are songs and letters, a judge’s sentence and newspaper cuttings amongst the dialogue.  

It is tight and prodigiously paced at the start – the two performers slickly alternating and interrupting each other. However, around the time that the timbre is turned up to a shout, things start to go wrong. It is an unfortunate irony that in the pre-show announcement O’Sullivan declares, ‘You might want to take this chance to head for the exit’, because when a gentleman does just that, McNair loses his place. He responds in style and heckles, initially incorporating it smoothly so that those of us who didn’t know it was happening are surprised. It puts him off his stride. With many a ‘f… it’, he struggles manfully to retrieve his place, but the show barely recovers and when, five minutes to the end, his costume proves to be more of a straight-jacket than a smock, he must have wanted to just sit down and cry. Even the script seemed considerably weaker at the end and the final line of the ‘Life After Dundee’ section was a flop.

It is unlikely that this is normal, after all McNair has a great reputation and over half the show was excellent. McGonagall’s Chronicles will surely continue to entertain those who enjoy a good play on words in a historical context.

Further Reading

19th century theatre

Mary Brennan’s review of the same show in the Glasgow herald. 5 stars.

Author: tamsing

I walk, explore, and love to give and teach Shiatsu. tamsinlgrainger@gmail.com

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