“Ye’re a bastart, da!” So begins Six and a Tanner, a one-man play written by Rony Bridges and starring David Hayman, currently showing at the Assembly Rooms as part of the Edinburgh Fringe. The unnamed speaker, a Glaswegian sharing the stage with a coffin that contains the remains of his father, then starts talking about Christmas when he was four years old. This was the Christmas his father decided to tell him that Santa Claus didn’t exist. At least this meant that he couldn’t keep blaming Santa for the crumminess of his son’s Christmas presents – the previous Christmas, when his son’s airplane (made out of clothespegs) fell apart the first time he tried to fly it, the father’s only response was that Santa’s “a cheap bastart”.
And here begins a diatribe – a 70-minute diatribe, during which the now middle-aged son rants, raves and sometimes just quietly, bitterly reminisces beside his father’s corpse while it rests in a funeral parlour, awaiting cremation. He lambasts the old man for his many failures and foul-ups, which resulted in his own life, his childhood and beyond, being so joyless.
My initial reaction to this was, what, another slice of urban brutalism / poverty porn from the west of Scotland? Here is a genre that for decades has been explored by writers (Robin Jenkins, Archie Hind, James Kelman, Agnes Owens, Jeff Torrington) and filmmakers (John Mackenzie, Ken Loach, Peter Mullan), to the point where the outside world must think that the only books written and the only films made in Scotland concern dysfunctional families struggling with alcoholism / drug addiction / domestic violence / gangsters / sectarianism whilst living in desperate conditions in Glasgow. However, as parts of that city still have some of the shortest life expectancies and lowest health standards in Europe, I suspect that Glaswegian miserabilism will remain a large feature on Scotland’s artistic landscape until the day arises – if it ever arises – when politicians manage finally to sort out the city’s problems.
Besides, if Six and a Tanner is anything to go by, there is still good, dramatic material to be mined in this territory. And thankfully, Bridges imbues much of it with humour – black humour, naturally. Indeed, some of the anecdotes that surface during the son’s lengthy harangue struck me as being too comical to be feasible – the black kitten that his father drunkenly buys one night in the pub, only to discover that it’s actually a panther-cub that’s been swiped from Glasgow Zoo, for example, or his mother’s less-than-tactful decision to use his wedding day to announce that she’s had enough and is running off with the postman – though having read that the play is autobiographical on Bridges’ part (and having known a few Glaswegians in my time who seemed capable of such things) I wonder now if those anecdotes are so far-fetched.
The nature of the play means that much of its effectiveness depends on the performance of its one performer, and David Hayman is well up to the job. Hayman found fame at the end of the 1970s playing Jimmy Boyle, the real-life gangster-turned-sculptor, in John Mackenzie’s TV film A Sense of Freedom, although international audiences may know him better for playing Malcolm McLaren in Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy and playing the villain in Ken Loach’s My Name is Joe. Here, Hayman conveys both the corrosive bitterness of someone whose life has been twisted out of shape by his old man’s inadequacies and the resourcefulness, humour and imagination of someone who’s had to develop such qualities from an early age in order to stay sane. I did wonder about the character’s age and the time-frame he was supposed to inhabit – references to disco, Mods and Roy Rogers raised questions about whether he was meant to be a child of the 1970s, the 1960s or earlier – though that is Bridges’ fault rather than Hayman’s.
Three-quarters of the way through the play, when the son recalls how he discovered that his father had become homeless, had taken to the streets and had disappeared, and – despite everything that’d happened before – he set out to find the old loser, there seems to be a danger that the story will descend into sentimentality. (Surely, I thought, it wouldn’t end with father and son in each other’s arms and the latter exclaiming, “I love you, pop!”) It’s noticeable too that Hayman’s energy levels go down a little at this point.
However, that doesn’t happen. We learn that, on his deathbed, the old man sprang one last, nasty surprise on his son – and the son wreaked some final, blackly-comic revenge on him. Satisfyingly, in the gospel according to Six and a Tanner, the sins of the father are ultimately visited on the father.