Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The Hard Man - Review

Kings Theatre, Edinburgh
4 stars
The jungle drums are pounding from the off in this long overdue main
stage revival of Tom McGrath and Jimmy Boyle's 1977 reimagining of
Boyle's life and crimes. As seen through the figure of Gorbals gangster
Johnny Byrne, what emerges in the first half of Phillip Breen's
production is a music-hall sketchbook of cartoon dead-end kids and
choreographed violence counterpointed by old time dancehall classics as
Johnny and his gang take over the neighbourhood. All this is punctuated
by a series of out-front monologues that point up the links between
crime and economic disenfranchisement, with a pair of gossipy wifies
making up a back-street chorus.

After such a stylistic whirlwind, the second act's stark change of pace
highlights the tedium of Johnny's incarceration, as it focuses on his
own brutalisation. Out of this comes a sense of enlightenment he could
never find on the mean streets in a voyage of discovery at odds with
the cage he's in.

If some of the play's didacticism dates things slightly, it's more than
made up for in terms of energy and bravura. Alex Ferns in particular is
possessed with a ferocious urgency as Johnny, who moves from wild-eyed
thug to a near Buddah-like deity. There's strong support too from Nicky
Elliot and Iain Robertson as Johnny's feral henchmen, while Stewart
Porter plays a series of chilling enforcers on both sides of the law.
The whole thing is driven along by off-stage percussionist Chris
Wallace, whose jazzy rhythms take a more ritualistic turn as Johnny's
mind opens to a world of possibilities. The final image of Johnny,
naked and covered in his own excrement, is of angry defiance in a
violent world.

The Herald, April 4th 2011


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