Al Smith’s witty new adaptation is based on Gogol’s classic story. Transporting the action to modern day Scotland, Gogol’s protagonist Poprishchin becomes the engineer Pop Sheeran – a troubled man spiralling towards insanity when his senses of personal, professional and national identity are seriously challenged in a post-Brexit world.
Pop Sheeran is not a civil servant like Poprishchin but his job is equally tedious as it involves painting the Forth Rail Bridge. As soon as Pop is finished with his mammoth task, he has to start all over again – an exercise in futility. Yet Pop is proud of his work. His luck begins to change when a global corporation purchases the iconic bridge. Then Matt White, a posh chemistry student from Guildford, arrives to work on the bridge with Pop and to test a new kind of paint that will make repainting the bridge every year unnecessary, a scenario that severely threatens Pop’s livelihood. At the same time the young man appears to get involved with Pop’s 17-year old daughter Sophie. As the problems keep piling up, Pop has a hard time coping. Suffering from a hereditary disease that affects only the male line of his family, Pop has seen his son Henry institutionalised after a psychotic episode. Pop keeps his own illness in check by taking medicine, which renders him impotent. He finds the thought that Matt might sleep with his daughter while he himself is incapacitated insufferable – it would make Matt the man of the house! With the prospect of losing his work, his daughter and his self-respect, Pop quits taking his medication and begins hallucinating and recalling his unpleasant childhood with an overly strict and abusive father.
Although Al Smith’s text focuses on serious issues – mental health and national identity in a post-Brexit world – there is no shortage of witty dialogue and original ideas. The tone of Christopher Haydon’s impressive production is set by the opening banter between Sophie and her best friend Mel. Whereas Sophie’s life is relatively uneventful, the cheeky Mel has plenty to share – she has made Duncan a man! And there is this new “nobility app” which proves that her father is 98% Thane – whereas Pop is put in his place as a “serf”. But there is still the “Heroes of Scotland” event to look forward to and Pop has asked Mel to tailor something quite spectacular for him.
Al Smith’s bold adaptation started off in the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, before moving to London, featuring the same outstanding cast. Liam Brennan inhabits the troubled engineer Pop Sheeran as he plunges from his rather peaceful life into an abyss. Guy Clark gives his impressive professional debut as Matt White, a young man with little understanding and experience outside of his privileged cocoon. Deborah Arnott convinces as Pop’s concerned but always generous wife Mavra, Louise McMenemy’s Sophie seems diffident but has strength. Lois Chimimba’s portrayal of the cheeky and self-confident Mel provides much of the humour in this play.
A daring and intelligent production successfully transporting Gogol’s play into the present.
Reviewed by: Carolin Kopplin
Diary of a Madman is playing at the Gate Theatre until 24 September