Al Smith's play, now at the Gate Theatre, garnered a raft of good reviews at the Traverse in Edinburgh in August, and it's easy to see why. It's a very loose adaptation of a short story by Nikolai Gogol about a man losing his identity and his connection with reality, from which it retains the idea of a talking dog, but not much else. Instead of St Petersburg, we're a short train ride from Edinburgh Haymarket station and the man who is falling apart is no longer the civil servant Poprishchin but Pop Sheeran, the man whose lifetime task is to paint the Forth Bridge annually.
Liam Brennan, whom I fondly remember as Duke Orsino in two exquisite productions of Twelfth Night at Shakespeare's Globe, gives a terrific performance as Pop, whose Scottish identity as a hereditary bridge painter is undermined by a number of worrying developments. There's a new paint which could make him redundant; the bridge itself has been bought by investors in the Gulf; and the polite young English graduate student Matthew who arrives to stay in his son's bedroom and test the new paint is having sex with his 17-year-old daughter.
The combination of all these hammer blows sends Pop into a spin, despite the efforts of his wife Mavra (a name borrowed from Gogol's story). But his mental decline may just as well be the result of breathing in paint fumes for 25 years. Pop starts hearing the voice of the dog Greyfriars Bobby and then imagines himself as a tartan Braveheart defending his beloved bridge from the English.
Smith is a talented and versatile playwright, whose two-hander Harrogate about a father-daughter relationship will be revived at the Royal Court next month. This play also features a father-daughter conflict, as one of Pop's main fears is that Matthew will supplant him as the sexually active man of the house. The dialogue is rich and funny enough to make the play's initial premise totally believable, and director Christopher Haydon finds neat solutions to the play's balance between realism and fantasy. I particularly liked the performances of Louise McMenemy as Pop's daughter Sophie and Lois Chimimba as her teenage friend Mel.
The playwright takes well-aimed potshots at some Scottish icons, not just the Forth Bridge (designed by an Englishman) and Greyfriars Bobby, the dog who pined over his master's grave and is immortalised by a statue. Scottish nationalists without a sense of humour probably won't see the jokes, although Smith's implied suggestion that the desire for Scottish independence is fuelled only by historical nostalgia is far too simple.
The script, with its jokes about Tom Hiddleston and Nicola Sturgeon, has a little too much of the feel of a play written for the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016 to have a long shelf life ahead of it. It succeeds brilliantly in front of a London audience but if I had to declare a preference, I would pick Harrogate, which is less topical and far more unsettling.