Following on from his previous semi-autobiographical solo shows, Donald Robertson is Not A Stand Up Comedian and A Gambler's guide to Dying, as the title suggests, Letters to Morrissey is a look back in languor at one of McNair's musical heroes. The singular former Smiths singer turned hit and miss solo artist isn't some everyday musical hero, however. Notwithstanding some of his more distasteful political pronouncements of late that were the latest in a long history of controversy, Morrissey inspires a fervent devotion bordering on a hysteria which even an overly florid autobiography and an unintentionally hilarious novel cannot tame. As with so many other mixed up kids like McNair, Morrissey provided a lifeline.
“The fact that I used to write to Morrissey is embarrassing,” says McNair, “but this show isn't a diary or a documentary. The show came from this long standing relationship I had watching Morrissey, and it's more about hero worship, fandom and faith, but using Morrissey as this kind of backdrop.”
The show was born after McNair and his regular director Gareth Nicholls went to see Tom Jones, who, on the face of it, at least, is a very different kind of pop icon.
“I'd referenced Tom Jones in Donald Robertson is Not a Stand-up Comedian,” says McNair, “and we always said we'd go to see him, and watching him, the fans went crazy in a way that crossed over with my experience of Morrissey.”
This dates back to 1997, when McNair was eleven.
“I was kind of this kid who was obsessed by things,” he says, “and when I saw Morrissey on the telly when I was wee, I couldn't articulate it what it was about this guy that was so fascinating. Then, when I got to my teenage years, my brother who was closest in age to me was into him, but he was quite shy about it.
“I think the thing that really grabbed me about Morrissey was that he was funny without being reductive. There was a seriousness to his humour that I loved. When I was at school I was really into all the comedy icons, and then I got into The Divine Comedy and REM, and I prefer Morrissey to the Smiths. Don't get me wrong, there's a poetry to what he did with the Smiths, but something happened on the first Morrissey album, Viva Hate, where he became a story-teller. Then he did albums like Kill Uncle, which were critically panned, but they seemed to speak to me. Obviously, I came to it late as a kid, and I didn't always know what the songs meant. I just thought they were fun and cheeky.”
McNair's show isn't the first artistic outpouring concerning teenage boys' fandom for the increasingly truculent pop idol. In 2000, three years after McNair first heard Morrissey, playwright Willy Russell published his novel, The Wrong Boy. The book was written in the form of a series of bon mots to the former Smiths singer from a protagonist who gradually morphs into a kind of Holden Caulfield for the angst-ridden indie-pop generation.
Letters to Morrissey, forms part of this year's Made in Scotland showcase at the Fringe, and comes too on the back of England is Mine, Mark Gill's big screen fictionalisation of Morrissey's own tortured early years in search of self expression. The film premiered at the last night gala of the 2017 Edinburgh International Film Festival, and is likely to be reassessed once over-expectant audiences stop grumbling that there is no actual Smiths songs featured in the film.
Alongside Letters to Morrissey, the Traverse Theatre Company will also be presenting two performances of Locker Room Talk, McNair's verbatim response to Donald Trump's use of misogynist language and dismissed as 'locker room banter.' Here, the words of men interviewed by McNair are performed by a cast of women.
“When we did the work-in-progress,” McNair says of the show's first outing, “what we realised was how important the post show discussion was. People needed to talk about it, and there was a lot of raw emotion flying round that really spoke to why we made the show.”
Given the reasons why McNair made Letters to Morrissey, has he maybe dusted off his letter writing skills and contacted the man himself?
“I thought about it,” he says, “but I'm quite scared for Morrissey to hear my name. That's how much in awe of him I am. When I wrote to him before, you heard about people who he'd written back to, but I think I'd missed the boat by then, but that doesn't matter, because he opened something up for me in a way that changed me forever.
Letters To Morrissey, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, August 3-27, various times; Locker Room Talk, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, August 21, 2,45 and 7.45pm.www.traverse.co.uk
The Herald, August 18th 2017