Writer and performer Gary McNair couldn’t believe his ears when his friend introduced him to the poetry of William Topaz McGonagall. He found the work “so terribly bad” that he was drawn to examine why McGonagall is well known 125 years later. “Who was this guy?”, he asked, “Was he meant to be this bad?” 

McNair has taken a poet who is pilloried and vilified and written a script using the same declamatory, clunky and “abominable” style, albeit in a more adroit and knowingly comical way. With awards tucked into his belt (Fringe First 2018), and together with Simon Liddell (Composer/Musician) and principal on-stage side-kick Brian James O’Sullivan (Musician/Chorus), he has created a one-hour touring show which tells the story of McGonagall’s life in often ridiculous rhyming verse. Somehow he manages to elicit sympathy for this most hard-skinned of men.

Using a form which would be recognised in the 19th century theatre of McGonagall’s day, McNair’s performance has a tight structure. He remains true to the metre and doggerel of the original, and performs in a flamboyant style which blends panto, music hall and stand-up. The text contains references to the nursery rhymes of the times: “bonnie and gay”, “nimble and quick”, but there are also contemporary metaphors, for “He was bound to be as popular as Game of Thrones”. There are songs and letters, a judge’s sentence and newspaper cuttings amongst the dialogue.  

It is slick and prodigiously paced at the start – the two performers slickly alternating and interrupting each other. However, around the time that the timbre is turned up to a shout, things start to go wrong. It is an unfortunate irony that in the pre-show announcement O’Sullivan declares, “You might want to take this chance to head for the exit”, because when a gentleman does just that, McNair loses his place. He responds in style and heckles, initially incorporating it smoothly so that those of us who didn’t know it was happening are surprised. It puts him off his stride. With many a “fuck it”, he struggles manfully to retrieve his place; however, the show barely recovers. To make matters worse, when his costume proves to be more of a straight-jacket than a smock five minutes before the end, he must have wanted to just sit down and cry. Even the script seemed considerably weaker at the end and the final line of the “Life after Dundee” section was a flop.

It is unlikely that this is normal; after all, McNair has a great reputation and over half the show was excellent. It is with this in mind that I believe McGonagall’s Chronicles will surely continue to entertain those who enjoy a good play on words in a historical context.