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Neil McCormick was at school in Dublin with a boy called Paul Hewson. They both had bands, Neil with his brother Ivan, who played briefly with Hewson’s band and could have been part of it. Hewson started using his nickname Bono, and the rest is history. After abandoning his own musical career, McCormick went on to be a rock journalist, spending the last twenty-two years with the Daily Telegraph, contributing to U2’s biography. This play is based on his memoir, originally entitled I Was Bono’s Doppelgänger, filmed as Killing Bono, now on stage as Chasing Bono.

The adaptation is by comedy royalty Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais, responsible for sitcoms like Porridge, gritty comedy drama Auf Wiedersehen Pet and the screenplay for one of the greatest rock films ever, The Commitments. They were also responsible for the screenplay of Killing Bono, introducing a plot device where McCormick is kidnapped by gangster Danny Machin (a real character in McCormick’s history) so that he can write about him and whitewash his reputation. We move between scenes of imprisonment and flashbacks to their youth. In a lovely touch, McCormick’s own music is resurrected and played live by the actors playing the brothers.

I’ve never seen such as detailed design at Soho Theatre as Max Dorey’s brilliant cottage, with an office above. The performances are excellent, led by Niall McNamee as McCormick and Denis Conway as Machin, with a lovely cameo from Ciaran Dowd as Machin’s sidekick. I found Gordon Anderson’s production charming, but it left me wanting more. At eighty minutes (shorter than the film, with a lot less of the story) it felt insubstantial, perhaps unfinished. The audience that lapped it up seemed full of U2 fans, so I was glad I didn’t wear my ‘Make Bono History’ t-shirt, a satirical comment on the multi-millionaire tax-dodger’s anti-poverty campaign!

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This story has a fascinating history – a 1962 Anthony Burgess novel(la) that became a cult hit, with the final chapter removed by its US publishers – a controversial 1971 Stanley Kubrick hit film, later withdrawn after apparent  ‘copycat’ violence, which Burgess didn’t really approve of  – referenced by rock acts like David Bowie (in his Ziggy persona) & The Ramones in the 70’s – a mid-80’s playscript by Burgess designed to head off others – play produced as a musical in 1990, by the RSC no less, with music by U2’s Bono & The Edge which Burgess also didn’t approve of…..and 20 years on we have the antidote to the musical, a small-scale all-male highly stylised piece ‘without decor’.

Well, I read the book and saw the film & the musical. I also saw a drama school (GSMD) staging of the play (without the U2 music). I had mixed views about the latter three, mostly around the beautification and glorification of violence, and now I have mixed views about this production, though not so much about the same issue (we’ve now had Tarantino, the master of glorification of violence), more about how well it serves the story.

It’s a somewhat prophetic story set in a future where adolescent violence gets out of control and results in government retribution involving brain washing. It uses an invented language, which seemed even harder to assimilate in this production, to create a surreal future dystopian future.

The all-male casting does up the testosterone levels which does aid the characterisation and the violence shocks without glorification. The stylised movement also helps make this appear to be another world. The minimalism (no set or props, simple black clothes) is also fine. It just doesn’t tell the story as well as either the book or the film. It’s also 50 years on from its inception and maybe its a lot less unreal today.

That said, a fine cast of nine actors, only one of whom I’ve seen before, work very hard and do well with the material; I was particularly impressed by Martin McCreadie in the lead role of Alex, a tough one to pull off when most people have the image of Malcolm McDowell permanently imprinted on their brain.

A timely staging and a partial success, I think. I’m not sure this story will ever be served entirely successfully or without controversy, but I suspect Burgess would be happier with this than the others and it is his vision after all.

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