Thursday, 14 August 2014

And I Ran With the Gang: review of Edinburgh Fringe play about Alan Longmuir of the Bay City Rollers

A few days ago I saw And I Ran With the Gang, a play about, and starring, Alan Longmuir of the Bay City Rollers. As plays go, it's hardly the most ambitious piece in the world, but then it wasn't really written for me. It is, as the narrator (an actor playing a Rollers-era version of Alan) says, a celebration, and the darker side of things isn't really explored. It was undoubtedly a hit with the former Rollers fans who came on the afternoon I was there. It was written by Liam Rudden, who I understand is working on Alan Longmuir's autobiography.

The production, which lasts about seventy minutes, is in three sections: first of all three actors tell the story of how the group came into being, and there's no doubt it's a fascinating tale. It comes over as a kind of fairytale, such is the speed with which we skip to their colossal international success. This opening third is done quite effectively, with a bit of comedy (the actor playing Les McKeown forever appearing too early in the narrative) which enlivens the brisk canter through the key events in the Rollers' saga. I am not deeply read in Rollers lore so can't say whether this version is one which would be agreed upon in every aspect by all the other group members, though I have read that the real Les is coming to see the show on the day I am writing this, which seems to indicate an endorsement. There's a bit of music at the start but this first section isn't punctuated by full songs.

After that, microphones are brought onstage and the real Alan Longmuir appears and sings alongside the actors playing young Alan and Les. Real guitars are played on top of what I presume is a backing track, and it's quite a moving sight: the real Alan stands there, virtually stock still, and your eyes can't help but go to him. I couldn't help thinking of Roy Orbison, immovable as everything changed around him. He is wearing a tartan waistcoat underneath a formal dark suit, which seems precisely right. His vocal cannot be distinguished from the others, so you can't tell how well or badly his voice stands up these days but that hardly matters: the mere fact of his survival has a dignity and a power which you don't need to be a fan to feel.

For me, as one appreciative of songs from that era but not really a Rollers fan, there were a few too many songs but how can you have a show about the Rollers without them? And they remain catchy pop songs. Listening to the original recordings once, I remember thinking that a few tricks were borrowed from Phil Spector. The lyrics are simple but they stick in the head - have done in mine for decades.

The third and final section was a brief Q&A, with former fans expressing their delight in the show. One woman who sounded quite middle class said, on the evening I was there, that she was surprised at how much pleasure hearing those songs again had given her. I took the opportunity to ask if he had reached a point where he accepted that he wouldn't be getting any money from his time in the Rollers and he replied cheerfully: "Nuh." So I hope that he does get something.

The evening would have been particularly significant for Rollers fans who knew that this public appearance had been the first time in many years that the real Alan had dipped his toe once again in the waters of Rollermania - something I only learnt later. He said they had been pleased with the response to the show so far, and I hope it goes on to be something - I was going to say bigger but maybe it's the right size. The play is a modest one and a larger theatre (this was a small function room in a hotel or restaurant) would probably necessitate a radical rethink. Maybe there is potential for another kind of show integrating the songs a la Jersey Boys or maybe the decision to have a dedicated segment is the right one: these are essentialy feelgood songs, pop at its purest, and I suspect it would be difficult to twist them into a narrative. Anyway, that's nothing to do with the matter in hand. The point is that the production worked on its own terms.

To sum up: if you're expecting a tell-all expose then this ain't it. But if you want to get up close to a former idol and to relive some memories in a roomful of people who want to do the same, then you won't regret going.

Update: the above is my review of the original 2014 production of And I Ran With The Gang, but it's back for the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe, at Le Monde (Venue 47) at 7pm, August 16-21, 23-28, 30-31. Booking details here.

Self-promotional bit: Rollers fans old enough to remember comedian Freddie "Parrotface" Davies and his seventies TV series The Small World of Samuel Tweet may be interested to know that Freddie's newly published autobiography Funny Bones: My Life in Comedy, cowritten by me, is available from the publishers here or amazon here.

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