13 September 2017.
Gary McNair takes us back to a time when the Sugababes and Girls Aloud were in the charts, the second Star Wars trilogy was unfolding and he was the proud owner of a mobile phone with 60 minutes of free calls and 90 free texts. Finding himself increasingly isolated and alienated from small town life he seeks answers in the words and music of Steven Patrick Morrissey.
Like his previous show, A Gambler’s Guide to Dying, this plunders McNair’s past life to produce an engaging piece of storytelling which gradually reveals some difficult underlying issues.
A wire cage structure acts as a backdrop, containing 25 powerful spotlights and decorated with various images (like posters on a teenager’s wall) which flash and illuminate at key moments in the story. There is also a small bedroom space where McNair starts the show, lying on the floor listening to The Smiths. He lifts the record gently off the turntable and carefully places it back in its sleeve before he starts to speak.
The show’s main focus is on McNair’s life when he was “15, clumsy and shy”. With a growing sense of being an outsider in his own town he finds himself referred to a teacher at school who acts as an amateur counsellor dealing with the “nutters and bedwetters”.
Advised by the hapless counsellor to share his worries with someone, McNair choses Morrissey. Having read in the NME that the singer replies to letters, he sets about writing to him. Over the course of this correspondence (15 year old McNair is keen to stress this is not fan mail…) it becomes apparent that as well as feeling that he doesn’t fit in he is also worried about a friend, Tony, who is trapped within a difficult family situation. Tony has developed some sort of notoriety in school over rumours of bad behaviour at home. Unable to get through to Tony and increasingly shut out by his friend, McNair ponders what the right thing is to do. Seeking advice from Morrissey on all of this, he signs himself off as’ The Boy With The Thorn in His Side’, sends the letters and awaits a response.
McNair populates his breezy monologue with a cast of vividly drawn characters including the gloriously indiscreet school counsellor Mr McKinnon and his own plain speaking friend Jan The Lesbian. He is an unassuming performer, effectively evoking each character through the words they speak and subtle unshowy shifts in tone and movement.
The story effectively explores the fraught relationships between teenage fans and the stars who they place on a pedestal. Like so many others the teenage McNair appropriates song lyrics to bring a much-needed coherence to confusing and complex feeling. Music can be transformative but with some performers there is also more – an inexplicable sense that simply through experiencing their music we somehow come to know them. Recounting his eventual encounter with Morrissey at a concert at Glasgow Barrowland, McNair captures the communal thrill of a concert – re-living his profound inner rush mingling with a powerful collective experience.
The show is not an exercise in hero-worship and, to a great extent, it isn’t even about Morrissey. McNair is well aware that the singer was and is a difficult person to totally admire. As he ponders his own flaws he is reassured by Morrissey’s imperfections. Ironically, it is the realisation that answers aren’t going to arrive through the post that spurs him to act on his own initiative.
Now grown up and looking back, McNair finds himself calmly re-evaluating his tenuous relationship with Morrissey but also struggling with still unresolved feelings for the place and people he left behind.
McNair’s ‘Letters To Morrissey‘ expertly balances buoyant comic observation with a thoughtful spotlight on some tough realities. It’s a compassionate backward glance to a point in time where reassuring certainties fade and the lines between being a child or an adult become frustratingly blurred.