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REVIEW: Smile – Dundee Rep’s great play about United legend Jim McLean provides glimpse behind door of Broughty Ferry family home

Chris Alexander as JImmy and Barrie Hunter as Jim McLean in Dundee Reps Smile. Picture: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan.
Chris Alexander as JImmy and Barrie Hunter as Jim McLean in Dundee Reps Smile. Picture: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan.

Cards on the table (yellow, red. or otherwise), Dundee Rep’s Smile has a special place in my heart.

Not only was it my last theatrical experience before lockdown, it was the first time I had been to the theatre with my beloved big brother.

In fact, it was the first time he had ever been to the Rep. He was tempted more, I’m sure, by his admiration for Jim McLean and love for Dundee United than a night out with his wee sister.

I have distinct memories of him heading off with a group of mates to Europe in the 1980s, following United in those glory days.

A play about Tannadice’s most legendary figure would mean more to him than me even though, final card on that table, I’m a Dundee United supporter.

Jim McLean held aloft by his Dundee United players after winning title at Dens Park.
Jim McLean held aloft by his Dundee United players after winning title at Dens Park in 1983.

So with the memories of the great live theatre night still fresh, it’s easy to come to this new filmed version, the first by the new Rep Studios online platform, with a little trepidation.

The “live” version was such a powerful two-hander that it seemed almost impossible to bring that level of energy to film, particularly when there would be no shared audience experience of laughter.

It has been more than possible, however, through taking a step back and looking at the play differently. There’s no one-camera static approach here.

The camera work is dynamic and the close-ups mean we can enjoy all the nuances of the performances by Barrie Hunter as Jim McLean and Chris Alexander as Jimmy, the character that guides Jim through the reflections on his life.

It also means that the dynamic opening where Jim, fresh from a touchline tantrum and thundering into the dressing room for his team “talk”, is even more explosive.

Hunter’s portrayal of the man was rightly praised at the time, but this version means that we see the smaller moments more clearly, we see the thinking of the man rather than the manager.

It also allows us to get better acquainted with Alexander’s Jimmy character, which could easily be lost in the breadth of Hunter’s performance.

Barrie Hunter as Jim McLean in Smile. Picture: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Philip Differ’s play, still directed by Sally Reid, is told through the football of course, but is a much wider examination of a man who had depths that he thought it was none of our business to see.

The character is key. Michael Sheen’s Brian Clough in The Damned United is another example of what a life immersed in football and a hunger for success.

Now that it’s committed to film, Hunter has done the same for McLean.

Unlike Sheen he doesn’t go for the uncannily accurate impersonation, he gives us the spirit of the Jim we know and thanks to Differ’s script, which was worked on with the help of McLean’s family, he provides a glimpse behind the door of the Broughty Ferry family home.

Jimmy gently guides him through his rollercoaster relationships with football, the media, the fans, and his family.

When Jim talks about his wife Doris were lump-in-the-throat moments on stage, even more so now, knowing that she lost him on Boxing Day last year.

Fans pay tribute to Jim McLean following his death on December 26, 2020. Picture Kenny Smith.</p> <p>

Of course there is plenty for the fans, but there are only a couple of references that might go over the heads of the uninitiated.

Most are explained, thankfully without any clunky exposition. Even his uneasy relationship with Duncan Ferguson.

Filming has also allowed some special effects – nothing that takes away the theatricality but slight enhancements that help to tell the story for the smaller canvas of a screen.

I decided to cast it to the TV rather than watching on a laptop for a fuller experience.  (The timecode is just for reviews.) Even the set design, which signified his last years living with dementia works well on film at this size.

Smile. You’re on TV. Picture: Lorraine Wilson.

One word of warning for watching at home. It feels much swearier in the living room at home than it did in the safe space of the theatre! Maybe watch where little ears are when you press play.

If this is an indication of what Rep Studios will be able to offer alongside its live performances, it will enhance its reputation even more. I know of United fans in Australia, Canada, and around the world who have already bought tickets.

Smile itself is up there with some of the Rep’s great productions.

Buy tickets to see it online until Sunday, May 16 at www.dundeerep.co.uk

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