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Edinburgh Review: The Hard Man

ImagePerforming at the Edinburgh Fringe
Wee Red Bar, 19 - 26 Aug, 7:00 - 9:00pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

This review is of a preview performance on 30 June, which the company requested be treated as representative of their Fringe run.

The Hard Man is the debut show from the splendidly-named In Your Face Theatre company – and I’m happy to confirm, this particular production was right in my face.  Penned in the 1970’s by convicted murderer Jimmy Boyle and fellow Glaswegian Tom McGrath, the well-regarded script tackles the life story of a Gorbals gangster, ending with a defiant response to his ultimate incarceration.  And by hosting the play in a real-life pub, In Your Face have set the scene for some satisfyingly edgy theatre – with cans of Red Stripe strewn across the tables, and occasional outbreaks of bar-room disorder barely an arm’s length from my seat.

But for all its unusual setting, this production is most defined by some strongly committed acting.  Special mention here must go to Christopher Rybak, the understudy (and artistic director) who stepped into the leading role for the preview performance I saw.  He delivered a portrayal which celebrated his character’s unbreakable spirit, without ever condoning his misdeeds, and his electric addresses directly to the audience were among the highlights of the play.  Yet the glory isn’t his alone; he was powerfully supported by a large and impressive cast, each of whom took their turn in the spotlight to unwrap a new layer of understanding.

But was this play immersive, as it plainly hoped to be?  To be fair, it had its moments.  For the most part though, I felt disappointingly disconnected, parked at the end of the bar-room and very much aware I was really just looking at an oddly-shaped stage.  The fourth wall might be kicked to smithereens, but talking to the audience isn’t quite the same as involving us, and the characters’ occasional attempts to mingle with the crowd felt too much like a concept which wasn’t followed through.

McGrath and Boyle’s idiosyncratic script poses some interesting questions – inviting an equivalence between the eponymous “hard man”, and the unforgiving society which creates him.  But many of the play’s messages were lost among the breakneck scenes before the interval, which tended to barrel brutishly forward when a pause for thought was sorely required.  The second half, in contrast, felt positively languid, so I hope In Your Face will revisit that balance before their full Fringe run.

There’s some well-sold humour throughout this play, but what ultimately sticks in my mind – in an oddly positive way – is its uncompromising treatment of violence.  It’s not so much the set-piece fight scenes, but the lower-key moments of casual brutality which I found authentically hideous; they’re portrayed with an unrelenting, thuggish physicality, which must surely have left some real-world bruises.  So, while there may be room for a touch more subtlety, The Hard Man certainly has guts.  And just as important, both director and company show an admirable self-control – because for all that the pace is uneven, they never let the adrenaline overpower them.

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