@ Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until Sat 14 May 2016; and
@ Citizen’s Theatre, Glasgow, from Thu 19 – Sat 21 May 2016

“How do you turn a duck into a soul singer?”

Gary McNair‘s Dad-gag is unwittingly also a metaphor for his show – it waddles about comically, but is nothing if not deeply full of soul.

Donald Robertson is a “funny wee man” McNair meets on a bus, a bullied schoolboy hoping humour will help him strike back. McNair ends up mentoring him in the comedy trade, and in doing so, may or may not have created a monster…

Like his exemplary Gambler’s Guide To Dying from last year’s Fringe, this earlier work, revived here for a brief run, is romanticised storytelling theatre about life’s little people, the dreamers and schemers. Framed as a stand-up gig – there’s even cabaret style seating and audience interaction – the meat of it is the story proper, in which McNair plays both himself and Robertson, plotting a way to beat the bullies.

There’s plenty of McNair in the character of Donald. Exactly how much it’s hard to say, but there’s the air of a letter to his younger self about the way he advises the younger lad. Whichever end of the playground pecking order we ourselves were, there’s plenty of us in the mix too. McNair puts a rich soup of childhood hopes and fears on the boil, spices it up with the fight-or-flight adrenalin rush of stand-up, and whatever personal experience we add to the pot gives it more flavour.

A lengthy preamble, in which McNair fires out deliberately hit-and-miss one-liners, and frequent diversions, including an “interval”, mean the piece has less cohesion than the aforementioned Gambler’s Guide. The set-up work is needed, not least since the one-liners come back to haunt him, but it is an article of faith going with it for the first ten minutes.

There are also asides, deconstructing the art of comedy, taken from the Stewart Lee playbook. They’re very entertaining, but serve to wrongfoot the audience as to the purpose of the piece (or at least serve a supplementary purpose, one that’s almost from a different play).

Billy Connolly gets namechecked, and the similarities between the men are more than beard and hair. They also share a groundedness and fascination with humanity. McNair’s a master of emotional manipulation. He’s not afraid to dish out the pathos, nor swoop from intense emotion to cheap humour at a stroke.

And that’s the key to this piece. For all the meandering, you’re never far from its emotional heart – the battle between strong and weak, insider and outsider, and the fears we all have, realised or not, of being on the wrong end of the equation. As an ending it would be a shame to spoil shows, who knows when we could be?

There’s one spoiler that does bear telling though:

“You put it in the microwave until it’s Bill Withers.”