Gary McNair revives his chronicles of the life of William Topaz McGonagall, originally created for Oran Mor’s A Play, a Pie and a Pint lunchtime theatre strand, as an alternative Christmas offering for the Traverse.
McNair writes, appropriately, in rhyming doggerel that mimics McGonagall’s own, delivering it with strong musical support – and several cameos – from Brian James O’Sullivan and an atmospheric soundtrack created live on stage by Simon Liddell.
McGonagall’s verses, which often sacrifice scansion for the sake of forcing a rhyme, have delighted readers and audiences since the Dundee weaver took up poetry at the age of 52 in 1877, when industrialisation took the bottom out of the city’s weaving trade.
McNair’s delivery is slick and he’s able to make perfect sense of the most outrageous of rhymes ensuring that his performance is as funny as the man himself might have been. McGonagall, however, believed his verse to be perfectly formed and continued to write new poems about world events, sell pamphlets and perform them in halls to an increasingly volatile audience.
There is a knowing humour to McNair’s own delivery. He plays deliciously with hanging rhymes in a manner which is worthy of any pantomime. But while he acknowledges the tragedy of McGonagall’s life, he presents the poems as comedy, passing up the opportunity to push the significance of McGonagall, a man who is remembered long after his contemporaries are forgotten and who would, surely, have had a different reception had he been born into a different class.