Sunday, August 14, 2011

Football on the Fringe: Singing I'm No A Billy He's A Tim

Even as you enter the theatre, Singing 'I'm No A Billy, He's A Tim' begins to knock one prejudice on the head. The idea that "Edinburgh in August isnae for normal folk" takes a hell of beating in this tale of Old Firm supporters.

It's been estimated that 75 percent of audiences seeing Des Dillon's play have never been to the theatre before. Certainly the sell out Saturday lunchtime crowd didn't seem to fit the profile of profile of many Fringe audiences.

That's understandable: this is a play that speaks directly to Scots and Scottish football fans in particular.

Although it debuted on the Fringe in 2005 it retains a freshness and relevance. Like a football team bringing new faces for the new season, the script is tweaked to reference recent events.

Neil Lennon and Ally McCoist are name-checked. So is Lennon's postman, lest we needed any reminder of the events of last season and the ensuing debates that those events framed.

If accessibility is one of the play's strengths then the trade off is the loss of a certain subtlety. That's clear from the beginning.

A Celtic fan and a Rangers fan are set to spend the day of an Old Firm clash locked in a cell together. The Celtic fan is called Tim and the Rangers fan - go on have a guess - answers to Billy.

The counter-argument might point to a certain tradition of popular Scottish comedy being broad and inclusive even when discussing our most visible football teams. Dillon's script, for all it's sledgehammer moments, moves us beyond Andy Cameron's "half 'n' half" Old Firm shirt.

There is no attempt to shy from the mindless stereotyping and misguided hatred that informs the bigotry of both men. It's a triumph of both the script and the performances, including some spectacularly realised examples of good, old fashioned Scottish swearing, that we see enough depth in both to identify with them - even before we learn of the bigotry that coloured their own childhoods.

Yet as they're brought together - united by shared experiences that cross the divide, a sense of humour, their intelligence and a shared empathy for the plight of "turn-key" Harry - it feels like many of the issues of bigotry remain unexplored.

While the script does full justice to the burgeoning relationship between them, the realisation that they are two halfs of the same coin, the sheer futility of the destructive bigotry that can turn father against son or brother against brother seems somewhat compromised by the need to entertain.

We're told early on that "there's more to fitba' than fitba'." There's also more to bigotry than fitba' and that theme deserves more scrutiny than simply being a conceit to convince the two men that they can bridge the divide.

When Tim reels off the races and religions - "Paki," "Jewish," "Muslim," "Chinky" - that would be unacceptable if substituted for "Fenian" in one of Scottish football's most well known ditties he is rehashing an oft made argument.

But, for this writer at least, that passage raised its own concerns. What joke are the audience laughing at? Is it the stupidity of those who indulge their ninety minute hatreds? Or has familiarity with their prejudices left us immune to how offensive they are, leaving us free to enjoy the "banter" while convinving ourselves that this is a victimless crime?

It's impossible to tell from the raucous reaction of the audience exactly which joke people are in on.

Despite these reservations this is a fast-paced, well executed ninety minutes of theatre. It's also an example of a play attempting to shine a light on modern Scotland and finding a popular audience for its message. That's to be applauded.

There remains a niggling doubt when you leave the theatre though. It says something particularly nasty about Scotland that this is a play reflecting certain strands of our society.

Singing 'I'm No A Billy, He's A Tim' will have done it's job when we can watch this tale of bigotry and ignorance - its repetitive banality along with the comforting humour it provides to those who choose to shelter behind its dated stereotypes - as a study of Scottish history rather a window on how we live today.

Singing 'I'm No A Billy, He's A Tim' is at The Stand Comedy Club III until 28 August