Raging onto the set from a side door that might as well have been a time machine portal back to the drafty corridors of a post-match 1980s football stadium, veteran actor Barrie Hunter has only been on stage a few seconds when the audience are treated to a red-faced, vein-bulging, phlegm-spitting portrayal of former Dundee United legend Jim McLean.
“You, referee!” screams Hunter, looking remarkably like the revered former manager and chairman of the Tannadice club as he rolls up his shirtsleeves and squares up to the door of the match officials changing room, seemingly in the mood for a post-match fight.
“I know you’re in there. What the f*ck was that out there today? Do you know the laws of the game?
“What is it you don’t understand about somebody being off f*cking side? I honestly believe you made every one of those decisions today just to wind me up! Well let me tell you – you f*cking failed! I have kept the heid!”
As the audience roars in laughter at this powerful, humour-edged nod to the perfection-seeking, greetin’-faced moan, public reputation of the man that led Dundee United to glory (and almost glory) in the 1970s and 80s , it’s immediately apparent that the wry-titling of Philip Differ’s Smile is apt.
What follows over the next 65 minutes is a fantastic, well-written, well-acted, far from sugar-coated portrayal of Jim McLean that does more than make the audience smile – it has them in stitches.
As if taking a look deep inside the psyche of the stereotypical, dour, Scottish Calvinist male, Jim – the tactical genius – lives up to his reputation of “tearing strips” from his players.
The play brings wry humour to various highlights of McLean’s reign. A staunch Protestant, it has the audience in hysterics when it hams up the time he sent his “believing” Catholic players to the Nou Camp chapel before Utd’s famous win against Barcelona in 1987, pokes disbelieving fun at the revelation his former troublesome young player Duncan ‘Disorderly’ Ferguson is now in management and doesn’t shy away from that day in 2000 when McLean infamously punched BBC sports reporter John Barnes live on air.
Chris Alexander, meanwhile, does a great job playing everybody else – appearing at times like the conflicting, self-doubting, thoughts in Jim’s head.
But writer Phil Differ, along with director Sally Reid, also do a magnificent job capturing the complexities of Wee Jim – bringing an emotional side that raises the question – who was – who is – the “real” Jim McLean?
Mindful that in real life now 82-year-old Jim is living with dementia in a Broughty Ferry care home, and comforted by the knowledge that this script has the blessing of the McLean family, the scenes where Jim reflects that the “real enemy” is time and wishes he’d spent more of it reading stories to his children and dancing with his wife, are enough to well up – or “shed” – a few tears whether you are a football fan or not.
As chants of ‘there’s only one Jim McLean’ bring the play to a close, the standing ovation from the audience is as much for the show as it is for the legacy of a still living legend….
*SMILE: The Jim McLean story was reviewed by Michael Alexander on February 20.
The play runs at Dundee Rep until Saturday March 7.
The Courier’s recent behind the scenes interviews with cast and crew can be read here.