Smile – Dundee Rep

Written by Philip Differ

Directed by Sally Reid

Rating: 4 out of 5.

There’s only one Barrie Hunter. From the Byre to the Lyceum, to Perth, and the Rep, Barrie Hunter’s presence has a renowned knack for lifting those around, for cutting to the heart of something with minimal effort and emanating a beloved charm. So, imagine the surprise as a flurry of profanity launches Hunter into the action of Only An Excuse? Writer Philip Differ’s compact piece on Dundee United Manager Jim McLean captures the importance of the beautiful game for thousands of Scottish men throughout history.

This one-act, relatively short production, Smile the Jim McLean Story, offers a snippet of the achievements of the Dundee United manager Jim McLean, particularly with a focus surrounding his responses to key events – from dodgy referees to even dodgier contracts, and the lead-up to a rather significant European Cup and what lay beyond. The production saw a hugely successful run in 2020, with an equally well-received digital run the following year – and since McLean’s passing following a long battle with dementia additionally sets this return to the Dundee Rep with a sense of significance for fans, locals, and those with a passing interest to the titan of Dundee folklore.

What drives a significant twang in capturing McLean’s intelligence and determination, peppered throughout is magnificent displays of humour in the performance. Hunter isn’t merely channelling a beloved fitbaw manager but embodying the essence of the game itself – its fans, grievances, and unparalleled spirit. On stage Hunter, under Sally Reid’s always exceptional direction which comprehends the tragedy in comedy, and the laughter in pain finds a way to lift the audience to raucous roars while still punting out the unsmiling, authoritarian persona which is expected.

But Hunter isn’t alone up here, as Chris Alexander joins Hunter onstage as the more enigmatic and surely symbolic ‘Jimmy’. It opens the performance into a two-hander, with Alexander dipping and diving between various roles – but ultimately is placed as the conscience of it all and an embodiment of a young McLean, or at least the aspirations and hopes he may have once had. Alexander brings additional elements of humour and performance, delivering a mighty fine performance, often portraying known figures in football and television culture, but fails to find a secure purpose in Differ’s script in moments, especially where the desire for a powerful monologue from Hunter leaves the role of Jimmy at the side-lines.

The ideas surrounding football fanaticism and issues Differ’s script grazes are perhaps too grand to answer within the limited timeframe. Indeed, is Smile even looking to answer these questions? It’s certainly a thrifty script, which at times stretches awkwardly towards the sentimental rather than enlightening. But – with credit, it does so touchingly and beautifully with honest humour. Offering the audience an insight into McLean’s home life and family, chiefly his two sons desperate for a non-football related bedtime story, and the other important woman in his life after his job; Doris.

In a limbo of their own devising, McLean and Jimmy exist in this grey-scale world, intermittently spliced with archive footage of various matches, and the infamous McLean interview, Kenny Miller’s magnificent set, lit with Lizzie Powell’s well-structured lighting, has all the nooks and crannies of a man trapped in his mind, his fame, and insecurities. It’s played to tremendously effective use, Hunter often chastising the audience as if we’re in a locker room post-match.

Theatre and Football have many, but one tremendously important thing in common: their audiences. Directors and Managers may painstakingly pick their teams, and align their strategies. They might even have to make a few substitutions, but the audience, the fans, decide whether this will work out. And there is no doubt, that for the Dundee audience, Smile is a winner by all accounts. Its humour can be laceratingly sharp or predictable though belted with passion from Hunter. This is a real gift of production, homely, and feels as ingrained within the city as much as the titan himself.

Lacerating Comedy

Smiles runs at The Dundee Rep until March 11th. Monday – Saturday at various times. Captioned and BSL performance on March 1st and 4th, with Audio Description shows on March 9th and 11th.

Tickets begin from £15.00 and may be obtained here.

Photo Credit – Tommy Ga-Ken Wan


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