It’s a National Theatre of Scotland production, but the casting of Gregor Fisher, Barbara Rafferty and Brian Pettifer, combined with the slightly tatty flat setting inevitably encourage expectations of Fisher’s alter ego Rab C Nesbitt, and while Fisher refrains from dispensing the wisdom this time round, fans of the long-running BBC sitcom won’t be disappointed.
Its 1977 and the run up to a Jubilee visit from the Queen. A Scottish/Italian Russo family are rapidly approaching the breadline following the collapse of their Minerva fish and chip shop business. We’re presented with a chaotic vision of working class life: a father figure too ashamed to seek assistance from the state; his wayward brother too busy conducting nocturnal solitary symphonies to actually work; an aging aunt pining over missed opportunities with the elderly owner of a competing business; a wife troubled by the encroaching chaos; a daughter who spends her evenings with a ‘chemist’ selling ‘energy pills’ to the weak and lethargic; and the presence of a 100 year old granny who is slowly eating them out of house and home.
Adapted from the Argentinian play La Nona by Roberto Cossa, Douglas Maxwell’s script is a witty commentary on class and social welfare, unafraid to boldly tell it like it is and prove that vulgarity isn’t just funny, but can be hilarious (and pretty much without swearing too!). There’s a wit and sharpness which frequently disarms the audience (cattle grids indeed!), resulting in audible gasps. With the Italian background to the family, it should be no surprise that business dealings end up hand in hand with mafia-style hits and murder plots.
In spite of the 1970s setting, the perils of the lone businessman, and difficulties of state support ring true for today – plus ça change.
The production design is simply glorious, with a very convincing dwelling of the late 70s on stage, carefully adorned in period dressing, which flows into the rather apt costumes, both the work of Colin Richmond.
Fisher plays the title role and is on stage for the bulk of proceedings. His part may not be wordy, but as a character study its sublime and effortlessly scene stealing as Granny hobbles back and forth, munching her way through an assortment of delicacies. Fisher makes the part utterly convincing, equally enthralling and disgusting – no surprise to those of us who have followed him on screen over the decades. There’s a great legacy in comedy and pantomime of drag performances, and here there’s potential for a life beyond the play for the character.
Granny is strangely the most stable character within the play, never progressing beyond an unceasing search for food ‘Geez it’.
Cammy (Jonathan Watson) never quite comes to terms with his pride, blind to his failings as a man of the house and business-owner – his shop may have been named after Minerva, but his aptitude for trade is negligible. Maureen Beattie as matriarch Marie is a Cassandra-like voice of wisdom, and steadfast in her own sense.
The rest of the cast get to play off with a selection of snappy lines, physical comedy and outrageous performances. Barbara Rafferty as Aunt Angela is hilarious as she swaps positions with Louise McCarthy’s Marissa, moving from sweet old woman to unwitting drug-peddler and comic turn. The older performers seem to get the most physical turns, including Pettifer’s 2nd act Francisco. There’s a welcome common naivety to many of the characters, giving them a simplicity which endears them to us, in spite of their sinister edge.
Praise too for the effective dramatic use of pyrotechnics – something I hadn’t seen done to this extent in a theatre setting before. Graham McLaren’s direction throughout is fine, with clever use of the whole set – action taking place in multiple locations, appropriate use of the bathroom set, and farce-like scene changes. If there’s any caution at all, it is directed to the final moments of the play – I wasn’t entirely sure how to read what was happening, and after looking at the published script it looks as if there’s been some significant revisions which create a more fatalistic outlook.
Sometimes when one goes to see a comedy at the theatre the humour is slight, but this is resolutely riotous, proper side-splitting laughs are guaranteed, as is the desire for a bag of chips on the way home. Considering so many familiar faces from the small screen, I’d love to see this transformed into a TV mini-series adaptation or movie, if only so more can get the chance to witness its brilliance.
Yer Granny runs at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast until 27 June 2015 and then finishes its run at Dundee Rep Theatre from 30 June to 4 July 2015. Robert J E Simpson, GiggingNI.com