Soho Theatre, London – until 19 January 2019
Chasing Bono, on at the Soho Theatre over the festive season, is a new play from Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais, drawn from Neil McCormick’s remarkable autobiographical tale, I Was Bono’s Doppelganger. McCormick and Paul Hewson (Bono) were at school together, both harbouring ambitions of making it big in the music world. Where Bono was to triumph, McCormick, to quote the playwright’s “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity”, spending his life in the shadows of his megastar pal, not only dealing (and coming to terms) with his own sense of failure but also, to be fair, going on to build a successful career as a rock journalist.
Clement and La Frenais have visited this story before, with a co-scripting credit for the 2011 movie Killing Bono. But the pair has sole authorship for this iteration which, staged in one 90-minute act, is perhaps the sweetest piece of new drama to hit London this year.
In a bizarre twist of real-life, many years back McCormick had been kidnapped by Irish gangsters. It is the mark of Clement and La Frenais’ genius that from this event they have woven a narrative that sees the hoodlum (fictionalised as Danny Machin in the play) demand that McCormick ghost-write his life story, and from which process spins out the remarkable story of McCormick’s own and very personal journey. The writing is fresh, perceptive and sharp, with the authors – whose pedigree includes some of British television’s finest comedy work – having an innate understanding of the human condition’s sweet spot, allowing them to distil pure humour from humanity.
They are blessed with a perfect cast, nearly all of whom hail from across the Irish Sea. Niall McNamee puts in a beautifully weighted turn as McCormick. Riddled with angst and envy and frustrated at his own (comparative) ineptitude, he carries the play convincingly, capturing McCormick from schoolboy through to adulthood.
Gifted with some of the play’s pithiest wit, Denis Conway is the hoodlum Machin. With spot-on timing, Conway brings an avuncular menace to this curious comic creation, a man who’s imbued with more than a hint of Clement and La Frenais’ Grouty (from their BBC comedy Porridge) in his fictional DNA. There is strong work too from Dónal Finn as McCormick’s brother Ivan – with a nod to both Finn and McNamee for their fine work on acoustic guitar that permeates the evening, while in perhaps the play’s toughest gig, Shane O’Regan pulls off a carefully crafted caricature of Bono through the years.
In another example of London’s fringe theatre at its unmissable finest, Chasing Bono offers an evening of flawless entertainment.
Runs until 19th January 2019Photo credit: Helen Maybanks