Theatre review: The Bookies – Dundee Rep

First published in The Times, Saturday May 7 2022

THREE STARS

According to the writing partnership of Mikey Burnett and Joe McCann, the idea of setting a comedy-drama in a bookmaker first came to them in 2007. Fifteen years on, the world of the turf accountant has changed beyond recognition. Gone are the smoke-filled betting shops of old, replaced by shiny corporate outlets stuffed with gaming machines, the paper slips and tiny pencils supplanted by online accounts.

The landscape may have altered, but the modern-day bookies is still ripe for storytelling. Pat (Ewan Donald) and John (Benjamin Osugo), the protagonists of Burnett and McCann’s play, work in a branch that contains more gambling machines than customers, realised in stark detail by Kenny Miller, the set designer. 

Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Much of the pleasure of Sally Reid’s production arises from the meandering, keenly observed dialogue. A sense of the inertia plaguing these characters gradually comes into focus. Pat is smart, eloquent, and going nowhere fast: the extent of his ambition is to win the coveted Employee of the Year award, which comes with a hefty bonus. John, meanwhile, with an ailing mother at home and an offer of a place at university, tolerates Pat’s verbal diarrhoea and casual racism for the sake of an easy life.   

The other permanent resident of this moribund white space is Harry (Barrie Hunter), a gaming addict, forever muttering on about his exploits in the Himalayas, whose mental health veers between lucidity and paranoia. All three characters are jolted out of their sleepy routine when Michelle (Irene Macdougall), the area manager, arrives at the shop, dispensing grudged good wishes and a round of redundancy notices. 

The first half of the show is an exemplar of banter and melancholy humour, paced beautifully by Reid and the cast, and Donald’s Pat is an especially compelling, recognisable character, his restless patter masking a deep despair. For all the promise of the setup, however, any attempt at poignancy gets sacrificed post-interval in favour of a frantic rush for the finishing line, complete with a botched attempt at a robbery and a lurch into violence and murder. Burnett and McCann are evidently talented, painstaking writers, and it is to be hoped that they allow themselves more dramatic elbow room in future, rather than falling back on quick fixes.    

Box office: 01382 223530, to May 21. Dundeerep.co.uk

Author: Allan Radcliffe

I am a writer, freelance journalist, subeditor and theatre critic, based in South Queensferry. My short fiction has been published in anthologies such as Out There, Elsewhere, The Best Gay Short Stories, ImagiNation, Markings, Gutter, New Writing Scotland and Celtic View. I have won the Scottish Book Trust's New Writer's Award and several of my stories have been adapted for broadcast on BBC Radio 4. As a journalist I write regularly for The Times, the Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday, Sunday Herald, Sunday Times, Metro, Big Issue and I was formerly assistant editor of The List magazine.

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