It’s a brave thing for an amateur company to put on a play by a living writer of the stature of Alasdair Gray but the group had the support and encouragement of Gray from the start. The cast were invited through to Gray’s flat in Glasgow where, in the tradition of George Bernard Shaw, their host read the entire play to them. In the spirit of the book cover’s production for the 1990 publication, where the face of the actor Kevin McGonigle, who played McGrotty in the 1987 Tron production, was “copied... in the part”, Gray used some faces of the HATS cast for the unique poster he designed for the play. Alasdair Gray attended Friday’s performance.
Published as a novel in 1990, McGrotty and Ludmilla was previously broadcast in 1975 on London BBC radio and subsequently staged at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow in 1987. The story is a modern pantomime loosely based on the story of Aladdin and set in 1980s Whitehall and described on the poster as “A Legend of the Thatcher Era”.
The tale tracks the rapid journey of the unco character, ‘nae pals’ Mungo McGrotty (Marco Biagi) of the hideous necktie, from bumbling, apologetic, low grade clerk who enjoys a can of export and a chorus of A belang to Glesga and I love a Lassie, who learns to shift the balance of power between himself and the Machiavellian Sir Arthur Shots (Simon Eilbeck) until he calls the shots (pun intended!) as a grey tie and grey suited English speaking Prime Minister. Phew!
The whole performance was entertaining and absorbing. It seems unfair to single any actor out, but you would never have guessed that this was only the “second stage appearance this side of primary school” of Marco Biagi who played McGrotty.
He was completely in character from the start with his Glesga voice and apologetic body language. Both Frances Tigar (The Minister) and Toni Giugliano (Charlie Gold) , the obsequious Civil Service lackey, were both comic, convincing and well captured. The power balance between the cool Miss Panther (Miss Python to McGrotty) is spot on with her subtle revenge in her calling him “Mac Grotty” as if it were two words.
Simon Eilbeck (Sir Arthur Shots) has the most wonderful malleable face, showing all the distaste of someone of that ilk even when speaking of the ‘heroic bauchle’ that was McGrotty’s faither who had saved his life in the war. I was waiting for a Ministry of Silly Walks when his foot was trampled on by McGrotty, then still a humble messenger, but there was neither a ‘deafening scream’ and no hopping about. If he could let that great facial acting filter down to the rest of his body we could have another John Cleese.
Once the much desired Ludmilla had shown him “the moves”, we saw McGrotty’s natural Scots gradually changing to English, subtly shown near the end with his English pronunciation of the Scots word ‘dour’, making it rhyme with ‘our’ rather than ‘oor’.
The sex scene between Mungo and Ludmilla on the back-to-the-audience sofa – all bare legs and animal howling - was clever and funny. It was also a nice touch to have the cast sherrack PM McGrotty from among the audience at the end.
The book takes the form of many very short chapters and the play reflects that by being performed in a series of short acts, punctuated with the chimes of Big Ben and whose scene shifts were well done by the crew. The famous clock, along with other well-known London landmarks, are seen through the windows that are the set’s effective backdrop made by Jo Marshall.
The cardboard car and party guests were good comic additions. The characters’ costumes looked just right for each part although Ludmilla’s could have been more outré to match her character.
In spite of sitting through longest 10 minutes interval ever, this performance was indeed ‘daft and enjoyable’ though it would have been good to see Gray’s style of speaking to his reader reflected in the piece.
McGrotty and Ludmilla runs 22 to 24 July, 7.30pm