17 Aug 2016 | Eloise Hendy
Tales of Redemption are as old as drama itself but Jeremy Weller's Doubting Thomas and Jean-Marc mahy's A Man Standing have brought gut wrenching, authentic biographical stories of prison, gangland murder and violence to the fore.
The story of redemption is an old one. The blood-soaked man who sees the light, changes his ways, repents. It is a familiar, even fairly comfortable narrative arc. Yet, in Doubting Thomas [★★★★★] and A Man Standing [★★★★], both at Summerhall, nothing feels remotely comfortable. For these pieces are not dramatic exercises in catharsis, dreamt up by playwrights who fancy themselves as contemporary heirs of Greek theatre. They are not simple progressions from 'bad' to 'good', because what real human life can be reduced to such black and white terms? They are in fact both, crucially, stories of real people, who now stand on stage before the audience's eyes. As the stories of real blood-soaked men, told from their flesh and blood lips, they are more powerful and compelling pieces of theatre than any imaginary transformation tale.
The Thomas of Doubting Thomas is Thomas McCrudden, Glasgow gangster, turned prisoner, turned performer. This is award-winning director Jeremy Weller's forte – taking remarkable lives and devising remarkable pieces of theatre, to reveal the drama that constantly surrounds us. He specialises in immersive, inclusive theatre, that puts individuals centre stage. It is theatre of both the personal and the grand scale. In this sense he is a true contemporary heir of Greek tragedy, as his pieces reveal the intense power and pathos of supposedly 'ordinary' modern lives.
While personal transformations are clearly central to Weller's work, the fact two of his major proponents are Sarah Kane and Lars von Trier gives some suggestion that his pieces are far from tame. There is no avoiding the brutality of Doubting Thomas; violence seethes throughout the work. As Thomas himself admits, he has committed almost every act of violence imaginable. Beatings, stabbings, slashings – you name it, he's probably done it. Domestic abuse, prison brawls and suicide are all held up unflinchingly. How did a man so addicted to violence his peers likened him to a fighting street dog get to be standing under the glare of stage lights? Well, as Thomas suggests, it is more of a natural progression than may first meet the eye. For, in his words, he has been acting his whole life, putting on masks and filling roles "none of which was me!"
It is this idea that provides much of the poignancy and emotional impact of the piece. It is an intricate study of how those who society most fears are often the ones most filled with fear themselves. It is a story of worthlessness and desperation. Reared in poverty, never shown love, relegated to society's fringes – is it really surprising that gang violence seems to offer glamour and the allure of power? It is a story of lost boys desperately playing the part of hard men.
Jean-Marc Mahy – the former convict at the heart of A Man Standing – also portrays his younger self as a lost boy, trying to run with the tough guys and getting utterly overwhelmed. In this piece, the violence is more psychological. Prison beatings and suicide are again prominent features, but what strikes the audience most is the savagery that solitude wreaks on the mind. Sent to prison at age 17 for the inadvertent manslaughter of a policeman, Mahy faced the full wrath of the justice system. He was locked away for 20 years, three of which were in total solitary confinement. White tape makes a box centre stage; a single stool stands inside. This is Mahy’s cage, where, for over an hour, actor Stephane Pirard will recall young Jean-Marc’s ordeal. All the while watched over by the older Jean-Marc’s hauntingly direct eyes.
Indeed it is Jean-Marc’s unrelenting stare that gives the piece its power. Knowing that Pirard is acting makes it difficult not to analyse his contortions within the cell as melodramatic, over the top, all too ‘acted’. Yet, Jean-Marc’s gaze jolts you back into the knowledge that this is not mere dramatic exercise. His eyes pierce all the action – all description of the torment of confinement are contained in his eyes. His eyes truly appear to have been to hell and back. Redemption may be an old story, but in these works it feels viscerally raw and necessary.
Edinburgh Festival Magazine - ★★★★★
August 11th, 2016 | Lidia | Words: Emily Phillips
Based on the real life of Thomas McCrudden, Doubting Thomas follows his journey as he turns his back on violent crime and tries to become a better man. His retelling of his dark past is deeply moving, emotional, and, at times, quite confronting. Doubting Thomas sheds light on the poverty-stricken side of Glasgow and how society, by treating them with disgust, offers those struggling no chance for a future that’s both legal and profitable.
With passion palpable in the room, McCrudden and his cast entrancingly take the audience through an extremely personal and inspirational story. It must be mentioned that this production contains themes of mental illness, suicide, and brutal violence that may be triggering for some people.
McCrudden is by no means promoting crime but earnestly asks the audience, in tears of compassion, what other option do boys like him have? To better understand a side of Scotland not discussed enough, Doubting Thomas cannot be missed.
Sunday 21 August 2016 | Jane Berg
“I have done terrible, horrible things, now do you think anything less of me?” asks Thomas McCrudden, who has come to the stage in his middle age, to finally stop acting. To drop the “mask” of the hard man that brought him a six-year sentence for attempted murder. Grassmarket Projects has devised ‘Doubting Thomas’ with a group of five ex-offenders, based on McCrudden’s autobiographical writing. The brilliantly paced narrative flashes enigmatically between past and present, wrecking the boundary between fiction and reality. The performers are reliving, revealing, and demanding that we really ‘see’ them; their quiet, raw, honesty will give your moral core whiplash.
August 21, 2016 | Patrick Harrington
Thomas McCrudden was a Glassgow enforcer. This is the story of his journey from that through prison to performer. It’s a brutal and sometimes bleak tale that does not pull punches in any way.
At the start the audience is told that the play will take us “on a journey, to a place and world that that times may feel uncomfortable to them”. It certainly delivers on that promise.
You can feel the tension and anger in Thomas as scenes depict what he describes as his addiction to violence. Yet Doubting Thomas has a message of hope. Thomas when a prison mentor tells a fellow inmate to take off his mask. What does he mean by that? Thomas has said:
” I was acting…all of my life I have been trapped in roles that I did not want…I want you to show this…I will do anything on a stage to show what I did and went through to get people too understand that in people like me, people they call monsters…there is still a child, in me, a scarred child…even when others were crying, begging me to stop hurting them, I was still this child. When I was growing up I was not given any love and that created a man, that was like a monster, I had no empathy, no care for others…I couldn’t, I was alive, but dead inside. I have seen people dying in front of me, bleeding to death, and I have stepped over them because it was not me, I was cold and heartless.”
The play has a strong social message that asks us not to turn our backs and look away from the ‘lost boys’. It clearly states that bad social conditions breed crime: “when your’re born into poverty, you don’t stand a chance.” Doubting Thomas is a plea for wider society not to give up on or abandon individuals. At no point, however, does Doubting Thomas seek to duck the need for individual responsibility.
The central performance from McCrudden is compelling. Despite the aggression and anger you can see a vulnerability. His performance is nuanced as he switches from rage to Glasgow banter and edged humour. Despite the seriousness of the subject matter and theme Doubting Thomas has lines and scenes that had the audience laughing!
The supporting cast show Thomas with his girlfiend, his criminal sidekicks and with a prison counsellor. All serve to throw light on what has made him the man he is and are good performances in their own right. They show also how some ‘friendships’ can reinforce destructive behaviour. A scene I found particularly telling was when one ‘friend’ sought to reinvolve Thomas in crime after his release from prison and took one (of only two) pot noodles and £1.60 (of only £2.50 he had) for a bus fare. He would have taken more if Thomas had allowed it!
Hat tip to Harry Mulligan in a carefully understated depiction of the prison counsellor.
Doubting Thomas is a show with humanity. It doesn’t seek to hide or excuse what McCrudden did. It seeks to explain it and show how positive change can be achieved against the stacked odds that our society gives to many. Although it’s emotionally demanding at times the humour and the positive message shine through. Go see it!
Thursday 18 August 2016 | Susan Mansfield
Ground-breaking director Jeremy Weller is still talked about on the Fringe in hallowed tones as the maker of shows such as Glad and Mad under the banner of The Grassmarket Project in the 1990s. The company, now reconstituted as Grassmarket Projects, works on similar principles, providing a context for “real people” to tell their stories in theatre.
Its second show, Doubting Thomas, has a cast of eight ex-offenders, led by Thomas McCrudden, a former gangland enforcer who has done time for violent crimes. He is determined to go straight, but he has a few tough questions for these “arty-farty f*****s” (Weller’s team) who want to tell his story on stage, and for us as an audience, consumers of violence as entertainment, who are rather too quick to label him and his ilk as monsters.
He describes himself as a “lost boy” who becomes trapped in a cycle of serial offending, but he isn’t making excuses: bad choices, limited opportunities, internal drives and the pressures of a violent masculine culture all play a part.
McCrudden’s strong performance, in an ensemble of strong performances, is worthy of many professional theatre companies, and many professional theatre companies could stage this work. Neither is McCrudden simply “being himself”, he is using the skills of theatre to reflect on his story and retell it. But, nevertheless, it stands apart. The rawness and authenticity of his story brings a power all its own.
18 August 2016 | Dominic Cavendish
“I’m not here for talking,” says Thomas McCrudden - face fierce, arms folded, clamming up - at the start of this compelling theatrical adaptation of his personal writings, charting his journey from a Glaswegian ex-offender who served a prison sentence for attempted murder to a reformed character, keen to help other lost souls. Despite turning over a new leaf after half a lifetime of violence and the dementing hell of prison, he had to be coaxed by director Jeremy Weller and his small team at Grassmarket Theatre Projects to tell his blood-soaked story off his own bat on-stage. The fraught process of making that leap is embedded in a cluster of scenes that may sometimes shift out of focus but never loosen their fundamental grip. At one point, McCrudden savagely manhandles assistant director Mark Traynor, his temper snapping at being treated as a curiosity by the sort of thespian type who knows nothing of the hardship and fear-filled existence he and his impoverished kind face. Rare, heady stuff, then, which stands on the boundary between art and life, safe consideration and visceral threat. In the background are a small group of other Scottish men trapped in criminal lives and the employment limbo that occurs once you’ve fallen on the wrong side of the law; shadowy figures we pass unnoticed – or in a hurry – on the street. But if we don’t address the need of this underclass of damaged "lost boys", we’ll reap the consequences, McCrudden warns. Very timely.
August 22, 2016 | Richard Franklin
Thomas McCrudden was a violent criminal and jailed. While in prison he underwent a genuine ‘conversion’ and wrote a successful book in which he expressed valuable positive ideas for preventing young people as he once was from ever treading the path which led him to violence and prison. Has Society ignored its duty towards the young and vulnerable?
This devised production by Jeremy Weller is truly gripping and the pent-up anger, constantly below the surface, can erupt at a moment’s notice like a match to a can of petrol. Merely watching the audience is sucked involuntarily into a dangerous world: it is truly scary. Anything can happen: when will self-control be lost and blood spilled?
The production is clear, spare and strong, and the performances all too credible all round. While some concession could have been made to the intelligibility of the very heavy Scottish brogue, the mimetic and the blocking itself leave no doubts as to the meaning, even if much of the detail is hard to understand. Intonation and body language however, as in the best Shakespeare productions in the hands of experienced actors, leave the audience in no doubt that they have not missed anything important. Go and see it! The human story is persuasive.
The prison population in the UK is one of the highest in Europe: why? The philosophy of ” lock’em up and throw away the key”is not worthy if a Country which purports to be civilised – especially when the cause (but not all) of crime can be neglect of the vulnerable in the very early years of life. Of course public protection is key, but , but failure to tackle the causes of crime can be said to be a crime in itself: Doubting Thomas highlights Society’s negligence and lack of political Will in this respect. This docudrama must surely also raise the question in our minds whether our politicians are too often too inexperienced in the ways of the world to actually produce the Leadership needed to address the multiplicity of complex human problems which only experience of the real world can inform. The lack of profound empathy – called wisdom – which usually only comes with anno domini ( and not even then in some cases!) results in the knee-jerk decisions our youthfully ambitious MPs frequently make: a First Class degree from Oxford is a good start, but even waiting for a bus which doesn’t turn up on a snowy night – or struggling to pay the rent for depressing digs – or the loss of self-identity through being unemployed – can be better routes to wiser law-making, than learning to be a Yes-Man in a nice suit in the Westminster ‘bubble’.
Doubting Thomas is not only a ‘must see’ but is also a ‘must do something about it’