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Be Near Me

Palace Theatre, Kilmarnock
3 stars
A celestial grimness hangs over Ian McDiarmid’s adaptation of Andrew O’Hagan’s novel about an English priest’s getting of wisdom in the small Ayrshire town he’s seconded to. In John Tiffany’s National Theatre of Scotland production, such an aura perfectly matches the corrugated iron wall at the back of the stage juxtaposed symbolically with the priest’s ornate chandelier which connects him to history. In this image centuries of division are made manifest, be they of class, religion or nationhood. When these totems of two very different worlds come crashing down or else are vandalised in the aftermath of a torrent of sexual indiscretion and self-loathing, it isn’t clear which, if any, is the moral victor.

For all this morass of sentimental but still powerful platitudinising on Scottish identity, Be Near Me’s lengthy domestic dialogues are too static to be really dramatic. Only in the first act’s climax, where McDiarmid’s Father Anderton ends up stoned, drunk and rolling round his Persian rug with local tearaway Mark to a Beach Boys soundtrack, does the story reach out and grab its audience. Tiffany’s ensemble work, a hilarious sit-down version of wedding party dancefloor favourite The Slosh in particular, does its best in a work where the majority of characters are merely sketched in.

On stage throughout, McDiarmid is a towering presence as Anderton, generating a complex emotional portrait of vulnerability, self-denial and sympathy beyond the pompous stereotype he could so easily have been played as. Even with McDiarmid’s empathy, there are times when you wonder who O’Hagan loathes most, the English middle-class representatives of warped authority, or a predatory Scottish underclass. Either way, Be Near Me is as flawed and fragile as Anderton. One hopes both survive.

The Herald, January 20th 2009

ends

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