In a strange twist of fate following reports of some appalling sectarian violence on the streets of Glasgow on Friday night, Saturday saw the première of Fresh Meat writer DC Jackson’s Kill Johnny Glendenning at the Lyceum Theatre in Scotland’s capital. The play, which centres around Glasgow’s criminal underworld is set to enjoy a month long run in Edinburgh before going on tour until November and is a timely observation of civil unrest.
The play does offer some insight into the inner machinations of gang life, but is first and foremost extremely funny and very engaging. The audience were won over immediately by bumbling goons Dominic and Skootch, played by Philip Cairns and Josh Whitelaw respectively and their clumsy attempts to deal with tabloid hack Bruce (Steven McNicoll) in a decrepit farm house in the Ayrshire countryside. Although Jackson has expressed dubiety over assumptions as to what constitutes ‘Scottish identity’, his script is delightfully colloquial and is delivered with the kind of frenetic energy that most Glaswegians will be accustomed to. Events soon take a more violent turn with the arrivals of legitimate businessman Macpherson (River City‘s Paul Samson) and monstrous Ulster loyalist gunman Johnny (David Ireland) showing just how out of their depths our two anti-heroes really are. Director Mark Thomson shows tremendous dexterity in allowing the action to move fluidly between comedy and terror drawing from influences such as the work of Quentin Tarantino and Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad. It is a truly tense piece and just as much of this (if not more so) comes from psychological menace as from the numerous shoot outs and scenes of torture. The fight sequences could have been more tightly choreographed but this does not detract in the slightest from the convincing level of threat that permeates most of the action. This is also helped by a stunningly built and lit set, created by award winning Michael Taylor and Tim Mascall. The grungy farm house in particular has an other-worldly quality to it and quite frankly wouldn’t look out of place in a rape revenge thriller from the seventies. Cramped and claustrophobic with man-eating pigs waiting behind the door, this grimy shack is the perfect setting for some real murderous behaviour in the first act.
But as the audience are transported back in time to bustling city life in the second act, where the ill-fated journalist meets his kidnappers for the first time, it becomes clear that the characters they think they recognise are not quite what they seem. What really supports this shift in tone is the strength of the performances. The showdown between Dominic’s heavily pregnant girlfriend Kimberley (Joanne Thomson) – who switches from air-headed gangster’s moll to feisty ball-buster with impressive ease – and the play’s titular villain is particularly revealing and often downright sinister. The relationship between Dominic and Kimberley itself is unexpectedly charming and rather sweet as they conspire desperately to find a way out of their corrupt lifestyle and in the end, this is their story to tell. Unfortunately there was not nearly enough time given to allow this to play out and at times the narrative seems to lack a clear sense of direction and purpose.
Criticisms aside however, there is no doubt that Johnny Glendenning will do extremely well on word of mouth alone. Highly entertaining, fast paced and with a refreshing lack of political bias given the subject matter, it offers plenty of scope for discussion as to the complexities of one of Scotland’s darkest sub-cultures.
Image Rights; Lyceum Theatre.