I am at the Edinburgh Fringe to see comedy shows, so what better this afternoon than a 90-minute play about a disgraced Socialist leader?
Especially as that leader is the OTT, almost cartoon-like, Scottish politician Tommy Sheridan and the play – I, Tommy – is written by Rab C.Nesbitt creator Ian Pattison.
It is a rollercoaster of a story and this is a humdinger of a production.
Just to re-cap, Tommy Sheridan of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) was accused by the News of the World of going to a swingers’ sex club in Manchester. Tommy sued for defamation, the newspaper paid damages, but then Strathclyde Police investigated, prosecuted Tommy for perjury at the original trial and Tommy was imprisoned. He has now, enterprisingly, in the last few weeks, tried to reclaim the moral high ground by painting himself as a lone hero facing the disgraced, Murdoch-owned, phone-hacking behemoth of News International.
So he’s an anti-hero? Is that why Ian Pattison chose to write the play and negotiate what was a potential legal minefield?
“It’s the character,” Ian told me when I asked him this week. “And the story. It’s the story of a small political party that appeared to be on the brink of if not great things then considerable things. They had six MSPs in Holyrood (the Scottish Parliament) and looked set to build, but then they imploded when Tommy decided to take on the News of the World over these sex allegations.
“A wiser course may have been just to admit it, if he did it, – but, of course, he insists he didn’t – and take a year in the sin bin. That’s the traditional method of dealing with those kind of things if there is truth in them. But Tommy decided he was going to clear his name and took them on. And that was the point of no return. Once you go down that path, well, nobody can quite tell how things will unfold. But certainly from the SSP’s point of view, it was the beginning of the end for them. So it was that kind of trajectory which interested me.”
The play is fast, lively and funny – the story of a Scots ‘Tam O’ Ranter’… Ian has captured the rabble-rousing rhetoric, the sometimes meaningless sloganising and soundbites of a populist politician in full flow.
It’s a barn-storming performance by Scots comedian Des Maclean, gifted with a brilliantly written script. It is also a play of surprising depth about a charismatic real-life character in a story filled with almost child-like optimism and lechery.
“It was such a big story,” Ian Pattison told me, “and Tommy was such a popular guy. He managed to get his side of events all over the press, whereas his party co-workers – the other SSP people – were not as charismatic as a group and made a political decision that, if they couldn’t support Tommy, then they wouldn’t oppose him, which left a media vacuum which Tommy was able to fill with his own version of events.”
There is a running motif throughout the play of Tommy’s somewhat eccentric mother singing To Dream The Impossible Dream, which pretty much sums up a story so OTT it would be ridiculously unbelievable if it were not true.
I mean, for heaven’s sake, Tommy went into the Celebrity Big Brother house with rap singer Coolio and Mini-Me from the Austin Powers films! You could not make it up.
The play is introduced as “an afternoon of broken dreams, backstabbing and treachery” and you could also add an awful lot of laughter.
Ian Pattison has only met Tommy Sheridan once – shortly before the play emerged.
“Well,” Ian told me, “I suppose you would want to get an idea of what it might be going to be like.”
“What was Tommy like?” I asked.
“Very polite,” replied Ian.
So far, Tommy Sheridan has not sued.
He is too canny for that.
Ian Pattison has cleverly avoided the potential legal pitfalls and Tommy Sheridan has emerged as a morally ambiguous anti-hero in Ian Pattison’s first Fringe production.
Why is it Ian’s first Fringe outing?
“At this stage of the game,” he told me, “I just wanted to see what else I would like to do and, never having done the Fringe, this seemed like a good opportunity. Probably not a sensible move for a man of my advanced years, but I seem to be still here and vertical, which is always a bonus.”
If this does not become a movie or a TV production, then Tommy Sheridan is not the fascinatingly charismatic (if ultimately failed) politician portrayed in this extravaganza of amoral egotism.