The Ballad Of Pondlife McGurk
JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE BALLAD OF PONDLIFE MCGURK at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 25.10.12
4 stars ****
IN THE Changing House studio at the Tron, a group of primary school children sit on four pieces of carpet, one in each quarter of the room. A criss-cross path runs between them; and at one end stands lone actor Peter Collins, ready to use this strange playing-area – observed from every angle by the watchful eyes of the chldren – to tell an unforgettable 50-minute story about loneliness, friendship, betrayal, and the eventual chance of making amends.
This is The Ballad Of Pondlife McGurk, a Catherine Wheels show first created in 2008 by director Gill Robertson, writer Rob Evans, and writer/performer Andy Manley; yet still looking fresh, powerful and necessary four years on, as it completes its current tour. Within a simple flashback structure – starting with a scene of two grown men walking towards one another in a busy airport lounge – it tells the story of young Martin, a lad from Birmingham facing loneliness and bullying on his first day in a Scottish primary school, and Simon McGurk, a strange, eccentric boy with a terrific talent for art, who soon becomes his best and only friend.
The tale of what happens to this friendship is an utterly gripping one, about the dark process by which a boy who has once been bullied and ostracised finally seizes the chance to become a bully himself; it touches gently but firmly on some very raw issues, including anti-English bullying in Scottish schools, and the potentially baneful influence of macho games like football. And it also contains a fine streak of poetry, not least in Martin’s ecstatic memories of their first summer together as friends, and of Simon’s brilliant drawing of it; an image so powerful that decades later, it propels Martin to seek out Simon on the internet, and to take a first step in trying to restore the friendship he once so cruelly discarded.