Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Smile, Dundee Rep’s football-themed online offering, transfers to the screen to provide a satisfactory record of 2020’s successful play about the legendary Jim McLean.
McLean’s remarkable achievements as manager of Dundee United are well known to those of a certain age, while younger football fans may well find some of them – a dodgy referee away from reaching the final of what was then the European Cup, for example – impossible to believe.
McLean’s hard-bitten, unsmiling authoritarian persona, derived in part from a strict religious upbringing (his father was in the Plymouth Brethren) was combined with a penchant for doing necessary DIY at Tannadice Park himself. Almost a caricature of the dour Scot, he was a member of a breed of football boss that has all but vanished from the top level.
That this portrait was something of an ‘authorised’ one, with the support of McLean’s family, means that (while far from being hagiography) it is warmer than it might have been. There is considerable pathos, of course, in the fact of McLean’s death since the original theatrical production.
McLean’s subsequent fall from grace might seem at a cursory glance to be a more fitting subject for a tragedy. However, virtually all managerial careers end in failure, and he was not the first nor the last to find that the transition from dug-out to boardroom is not an easy one. There are also several other examples of an ex-manager remaining at a club and that not making for happy relationships, although few such careers ended as suddenly or violently as McLean’s did.
Since it was always clear that the audience for this play would have held McLean in high regard, it is not surprising that it is about as rosy a picture as could be painted. There is a clear desire to give that audience what they both want and expect; there are large amounts of info-dump early on, while footballing events rely heavily on well-worn anecdotes.
Given this, Philip Differ’s script is economical and punchy, although tends to the superficial, with the portrayal of family life veering towards the sentimental rather than the illuminating. The suggestion that McLean’s dourness masked an essentially shy nature may be plausible but is represented in cliched terms.
Barrie Hunter’s performance as McLean is perfectly pitched – recognisable without being an impersonation, versatile, emotional and volcanic without ever going too far.
Sally Reid’s original direction remains exemplary, and revisions for the filmed version are clever and instructive, bringing both Lizzie Powell’s lighting and Fiona Johnston’s sound into sharp focus.
However, not everything works so well on film. There are elements whose winning theatricality transfer less well – Kenny Miller’s bombed-out set, surely stunning when seen in person, looks decidedly peculiar on a screen.
Chris Alexande. Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
A bigger problem is the two-handed structure. Chris Alexander plays a variety of other parts – any students of Differ’s work will not be surprised to learn they include somewhat cruel representations of Lorraine Kelly and Chick Young. For the most part, however, he portrays a character called Jimmy, who appears to represent McLean’s conscience as well as being a younger version of himself.
Once again, this is a clever theatrical device, but great allowances have to be made when watching a filmed version for the whole conceit not to come across as annoying, despite Alexander’s extremely fine performance.
Taken purely as a filmed record of a play, however, this is a valuable document, as well as being of wide and obvious interest.
Running time 1 hour
Dundee Rep online
Friday 16 April – Sunday 16 May 2021
Tickets and details at: Book here
Smile – Charity Q&A LIVE ON ZOOM with Dundee United Legends
Friday 14 May, 8.15pm
All proceeds to Alzheimer Scotland
In association with Dundee United Supporters Foundation, join Dundee United Legends Maurice Malpas, Paul Hegarty, Davie Dodds, Hamish McAlpine and John Holt for a special Q&A event hosted by Paul Reid, following the performance of SMILE on Friday 14 May.
Tickets and details: Book here.