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The Hard Man
by Tom McGrath and Jimmy Boyle

King's Theatre, Edinburgh, 31 March – 9 April 2011
King's Theatre, Glasgow, 12
16 April 2011
Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, 21
23 April 2011
His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, 26
30 April 2011
Dundee Rep Theatre, 3
7 May 2011

cast list | reviews | photographs | flyer


 
Cast List

Alex Ferns
Nicky Elliott
Iain Robertson
Paul Morrow
Stewart Porter
Alison O'Donnell
Cara Kelly
Percussionist
– Chris Wallace

Directed by Phillip Breen
Designed by Max Jones
Lighting Design
er
Tina MacHugh
Sound Designer
Graham Sutherland
Fight Director
Renny Krupinski
Wardrobe
Jackie Holt
Casting Director
– Morag Arbuthnott (for EH7 Casting)
Production Manager
– Fiona Fraser
Company and Stage Manager – Colin Sutherland
Deputy Stage Manager
– Hilly
Assistant Stage Manager
– Beth Rennie
Set construction
– B Scenic

 Produced by Scottish Theatres Consortium
 


Click here to read read Phillip's article for The Scotsman, about meeting sculptor and 
playwright Jimmy Boyle, and his introduction to the 2011 printed edition of The Hard Man.


   
Reviews

 
The Scotsman
by Joyce McMillan
 
It's a measure of the greatness of Tom McGrath's 1977 play The Hard Man that it never quite fulfils any of the stereotyped expectations aroused by its title, and its subject. Co-written by McGrath and Jimmy Boyle - then only recently released from Barlinnie Prison, where he had been serving a life sentence for murder - it certainly offers a fictionalised version of the story of Boyle's early life, as a violent "enforcer" in Glasgow's criminal underworld.
 
Yet the play's style is more musical than narrative, swerving through the story of its fictional antihero, Johnny Byrne, in a series of short, violent scenes counterpointed by a chorus of comment from two Gorbals women. In the second half, it begins to explore Byrne's experience of imprisonment, and the extreme brutalisation he underwent in a "cage" at Peterhead, in a way that is expressionistic and almost mystical; like a musical piece that begins with a great thunder of rhythm and energy, but gradually shifts into a sombre and meditative key, still punctuated by violence, but increasingly threaded with a possibility of shimmering stillness.
 
The play, in other words, is neither a conventional glamorisation of violence in the guise of a crime story, not a straightforward naturalistic condemnation of Byrne's crimes and their impact. Instead, it attempts the most difficult thing of all, a deep exploration of Byrne's impulse to violence, of the way his brutality is mirrored by the licensed thuggery of the criminal justice system, and of his slow discovery of a possible life beyond that cycle of violence. 
 
And it's a tremendous tribute to the intelligence and thoughtfulness of Phillip Breen's new production of the play, for the Scottish Theatres Consortium, that it remains true to that complex rhythm in McGrath's work, rather than trying to simplify or popularise it. Max Jones's set and Tina McHugh's lighting create a simple arena for Byrne's story, at first overlooked by tenement windows, later veiled in a growing darkness pierced by sudden shafts of light.

Graham Sutherland and percussionist Chris Wallace generate a strange, resonant soundscape, with an eerie edge of spiritual energy; and Alex Ferns, as Byrne, gives the performance of a lifetime, as a man struggling from an instinctive drive towards survival and dominance in a rough environment, towards a life of thought and self-reflection, full of new possibilities.
 
McGrath's play ends at the beginning of this new story, in the moment when Byrne first creates his own extreme protest against the conditions at Peterhead, and if Breen's production has a fault, it lies in a slight failure to pace and orchestrate that ending so that its full meaning reaches the audience. For most of its length, though, the production is almost flawless, with Iain Robertson and Nicky Elliott moving seamlessly and significantly from their early roles as Byrne's violent henchmen to their later ones as baton-wielding prison officers, and Cara Kelly and Alison O'Donnell turning in fine performances in McGrath's thoughtful cameos of the women in Byrne's life. The Hard Man is not - and is not intended to be - an easy show to watch. Even 34 years on, though, it still seems like a cutting-edge attempt to get beyond conventional attitudes to the deep seam of violence in Scottish life, and to transcend that toxic mixture of hero-worship and hatred that still dogs former criminals like James Boyle today, and returns to haunt our national conversation, every time his name and his story are mentioned.
 
 

The Guardian
by Mark Fisher
 
When Tom McGrath died two years ago, he was commemorated for many things: editor of International Times, counter-culture poet, founder of two Glasgow theatres and musical director for Billy Connolly. Less certain was his legacy as a playwright. Laurel and Hardy, his tribute to Stan and Ollie, was still going strong, but there was a suspicion that much of his work was right for the moment, as befits a jazz man, but didn't necessarily stand the test of time.
 
The likely exception was The Hard Man and here, in its first major revival in 30 years, we get to see why McGrath is so hard to pin down as a playwright. Based on the life story of Jimmy Boyle, the play's co-writer, who was locked up in the special unit of Barlinnie prison at the time, it is a study of a brutalised man in a brutalising system. The intervening years have brought many more portrayals of gangland thuggery, but this one still stings with its vision of unremitting violence.
 
What's fascinating is the way McGrath constantly undercuts what could be a conventional bio-drama to create something idiosyncratic. Much of it, in Phillip Breen's handsome production, is set to a live score of cymbal ticks and drum rolls, turning the everyday dialogue into syncopated jazz poetry. The short scenes, which vary from the banal to the lyrical, are like impressionistic fragments of a collage. Even when the drama is at its most intense, a character will turn to the audience, with a magpie-like nod to the musical hall, to explain what's going on.
 
It is eccentric and a little unwieldy, but also a period piece that makes the period seem a more interesting place to be. As Johnny Byrne, a thinly disguised portrait of Boyle, Alex Ferns is a baby-faced gangster who proves himself unbreakable. What sets this "gentle terror" apart is his intelligence, an ability to see beyond his own situation even as he is taking a blade to the face of some hapless credit defaulter or beating up his girlfriend.
 
He is not a pleasant character, but neither is the world he inhabits. Without apologising for him, the play shows how a man can be a respected success in a disenfranchised underclass while battling with a state system that seems no less violent in its means. Pummelling and bleak, this testament to the spirit of survival still carries a grim force.
 
 

The Herald
by Neil Cooper
 
The jungle drums are pounding from the off in this long overdue main stage revival of Tom McGrath and Jimmy Boyle’s 1977 reimagining of Boyle’s life and crimes.
 
As seen through the figure of Gorbals gangster Johnny Byrne, what emerges in the first half of Phillip Breen’s production is a music-hall sketchbook of cartoon dead-end kids and choreographed violence counterpointed by old time dancehall classics as Johnny and his gang take over the neighbourhood. All this is punctuated by out-front monologues that point up the links between crime and economic disenfranchisement, with a pair of gossipy wifies making up a back-street chorus.
 
After such a stylistic whirlwind, the second act’s stark change of pace highlights the tedium of Johnny’s incarceration, as it focuses on his own brutalisation. Out of this comes a sense of enlightenment he could never find on the mean streets in a voyage of discovery at odds with the cage he’s in.
 
If some of the play’s didacticism dates things, it’s more than made up for in terms of energy and bravura. Alex Ferns in particular is possessed with a ferocious urgency as Johnny, who moves from wild-eyed thug to a near Buddah-like deity. There’s strong support too from Nicky Elliot and Iain Robertson as Johnny’s feral henchmen, while Stewart Porter plays a series of chilling enforcers on both sides of the law.
 
It is driven along by off-stage percussionist Chris Wallace, whose jazzy rhythms take a more ritualistic turn as Johnny’s mind opens to a world of possibilities. The final image of Johnny, naked and covered in his own excrement, is of angry defiance in a violent world.
 
 

The News of the World
"2011'S MUST SEE SHOW"
 
 

The Daily Record
 
 

edinburghspotlight.com
by Chiara Pannozzo
 
It couldn’t be described as anything less than a meeting of minds when celebrated Glasgow playwright Tom McGrath collaborated with revered Glasgow gangster Jimmy Boyle to pen a fictionalised version of the gangsters life. Having originally premiered to great acclaim at the Traverse Theatre in the late 1970s, the 2011 interpretation aims to be an increasingly powerful production. Directed by Phillip Breen, whose previous works include The Caretaker and The Shadow of a Gunman, The Hard Man is destined to have you re-evaluate your perceptions of what a gangsters life truly entails.
 
The play itself is based in and around Clydeside, charting a series of events that support Johnnie Byrne (Alex Ferns) in his quest to make a living from a life of crime. The set design was simple, yet undeniably representative of Glasgow in the 1960s. Two tenement blocks, complete with the obligatory sandstone and sash windows, reminiscent of what still stands on the streets of Glasgow today, provided the backdrop for the actors to guide us through Johnnie Byrne’s life. The lighting throughout the first half of the production was characteristic of unsavoury activity, using dark tones to create an atmosphere of unrest. In contrast, what came after the interval was a cavernous stage, with lighting that was stark and bright, conveying a sense of examining Johnnie’s life, where the luminous strip lights left no room to hide from reality.
 
Ferns gave a memorable performance as the gangster, more locally referred to as ‘The Gentle Terror’. His movements and pitch were entirely fluid and his portrayal of an animalistic gangster was terrifyingly convincing. Supported largely by his two brothers, (Nicky Elliot and Iain Robertson) in the first half of the production, Elliot and Robertson showcased their talents by taking on a number of roles throughout the production, at times abandoning their sibling duties to become the very people intent on ensuring justice was done.
 
There were a number of impressive monologues throughout The Hard Man, where the audience were given an insight into what the characters were really thinking. Through his monologues, Ferns tried on a number of occasions to justify his behaviour, challenging us to see the world through his eyes. A number of scenes were performed in slow motion, where the actors demonstrated their ability not only to speak in Glasgow tongue, but to slow down the swing of a punch, and the thrust of a kick.
 
The Hard Man is a production that leaves you questioning your values. Very few of us come into contact with the themes of violence and hardship that run through this play, leaving us ill equipped to cope with them. However, in a society which is becoming increasingly immersed in such difficulties, productions like The Hard Man are less likely to age. The themes in this production are as relevant now as they were in the 1970s, and when acted out by the quality that was on stage tonight, this production could be considered timeless.
 
 

whatsonstage.com
by Keith Paterson
 
Thirty years have passed since the last revival of The Hard Man by Jimmy Boyle and Tom McGrath. There was a concern that the play, important in its day, could have dated. However, apart from some clumsy dialogue, the piece remains powerful and shocking. That is as much to do with the carefully judged intense production by Phillip Breen.
 
The first act charts the bloody path that this intelligent man chooses for himself and later the tables are turned as we see institutionalised violence at work. Johnny tastes his own medicine at the hands and the truncheons of sadistic prison warders. There really is no reasoning for either variety and the play does not seek to make a case or profer excuses but rather presents the story, using a variety of theatrical devices including vaudeville, music and out front narration. 
 
The play is uncomfortable to watch as the initial instinct to admire the vibrant choreography at play, gives way to distaste as the denouement of each sequence ends in a slashing or a stabbing. 
Alex Ferns is impressively commanding as Johnny Byrne, the fictionalised version of Boyle, particularly in the cage scenes. 
 
The supporting cast is strong and the percussive score which underpins the production is impressively played by Chris Wallace. 
 
In some ways, the worrying aspect is that after 3 decades the play remains so relevant as the mindless, brutal violence continues to blight society and like McGrath and Boyle, nobody seems to have an answer for stopping it.
 
 

ediburghguide.com
by Alex Eades
 
Stepping off a train onto a foreign platform can, even to the most experienced traveller, spark a youthful sense of adventure. For a blink of an eye, Ayr can seem like an untouched, mystical wonderland with potentially endless opportunities lurking around every corner....okay, perhaps that’s going too far.
 
But when my feet hit the cold, damp concrete of Glasgow Central Station, I can’t help but notice a stabbing feeling of dread deep within me. To say that my relationship with Glasgow is a rotten one is a truly wild understatement. It resembles that of a small, pram bound child and a rottweiler with syphilis.
 
But there are many stories to tell of this wild town, for good, evil and sometimes a bit of both. Tom McGrath’s 1977 play, The Hard Man, a fictitious account of the notorious Jimmy Boyle’s life of crime on the streets of Glasgow, is perhaps one of those that is a bit of both... perhaps.
 
McGrath was fascinated by the violence of Laurel and Hardy, with his first play being about those two lovable screen legends. With The Hard Man, all the laughs are set aside and the violence becomes the main topic of conversation.
 
With this new production, the influences of those movies are everywhere. The rhythm, the beat and even the occasional laugh. The fights are choreographed into something of beauty. Of something to be seen and admired. Much like the criminals themselves.
 
The themes of violence, power, corruption and debt are abundant throughout and hit home with a mighty sucker punch here in 2011.
 
The performances are fantastic, with Alex Ferns bringing an ice cold menace to the lead role that you could feel right at the back of the Kings. There were times that I thought he was going to leap off the stage and begin a murderous rampage. Truly unnerving and utterly brilliant.
 
Powerful, violent, bleak and Gobsmacking, this is one cracking show. Though you may not want to walk home alone....especially if you're Glasgow bound
 
 

TV Bomb
 
“If it takes a lifetime to kill a man with his debts, it doesn’t make it any less of a murder”. Tom McGrath’s 1977 text The Hard Man, which he wrote in collaboration with Scottish hard man Jimmy Boyle, couldn’t have foreseen how relevant that line would appear over 30 years later. Director Phillip Breen presents a fierce, stylised account of gang culture in Glasgow, mirroring the brutality, violence and sadism McGrath set to map out.
 
Fictionalising the life of Jimmy Boyle, the play sees petty thief and criminal Johnny Byrne (Alex Ferns) fall in with gangsters and mob bosses. Together with his sidekicks (Nicky Elliot and Iain Robertson), they take what they want, do what they want, and give a Glesgae smile to anyone who says otherwise. After Byrne is convicted of murder however, his animalism and lust for violence are the only things which keep him alive.
 
“Violence is an art form”. Addressing the audience, Byrne seems to sum up this production quite well. From the stylised slow-motion fighting sequences overlaid with Nat King Cole songs, to the punchy and fluid scene changes motored by a constant percussive soundtrack, the glamorisation of Byrne’s hunger for violence enthralls and unsettles. Yet for all his asides and attacks on the middle-classes, Byrne’s sophistication is borne out of the occasional reference to the superego or Oedipus, reflecting not only a depth to his belligerency, but an awareness of his ability to confront social class structures. While the play is, at times, let down by a certain level of predictability, it’s made up for in Ferns’ hypnotising performance as a man constructed out of an inherently flawed social system. And while he maims and punishes the debtors who come to him a month late, he himself is a man left short: by the lack of social values and moral structures which have conned him out of anything other than a reckless and self-destructive existence.
 
 

Lothian Life
by Ros McKenzie
 
"The animal is thinking…” Words used and repeated by hard man Johnny Byrne as he paces his prison cell and tries to figure out just how he can hold his own and extract revenge in a brutal prison system. This animal is thinking… forced by Alex Ferns’ remarkable performance to face the realities of violence and poverty as depicted in Tom McGrath and Jimmy Boyle’s revived 1977 play. “The Hard Man” was a sensation in its day, based on the early years and imprisonment of Jimmy Boyle, said to be the most violent man in Scotland. At the time Boyle was still in prison, and the play’s final scene of defiance and despair, a life caught up in shit, seemed to suggest no hope, no redemption. With hindsight we know differently. Boyle became a successful artist, married his psychiatrist, embraced a middle class lifestyle, became actively and positively involved in the community, and well and truly left behind actual poverty and the poverty of ideas, aspirations and opportunities that had fuelled his huge anger and his frantic brawl for survival.
 
The play is as vibrant and relevant today as it was over 30 years ago. Then it was performed in the intimate space of the old Traverse Theatre; we the audience sat round the action, looked straight into the crazed eyes of Johnny Byrne, smelt the sweat and almost had to dodge the punches. There is a whole different feel to viewing the play onstage at the King’s Theatre. Our role as outsiders is emphasised. The stage setting is vast and dark, alienating those onstage from life beyond, kept on the fringes, never expecting to be absorbed into mainstream society and surviving by a different code. There is a Greek chorus of sorts in two stairheid Gorbals’ wifies keeping us abreast of the latest violence with their gossip. Acts of violence are stylised into almost balletic sequences, ritualised brutality that is part of the culture. .But then in Act 2 comes the killer reversal. Those on the side of law – the prison guards – are seen to be as vicious and violent as the inmates, and for them there are no excuses, no social imperatives. Paisley, Johnston and Renfrew, three sadistic officers sharing their names with three Scottish towns, played by the same actors as those who were with Byrne in his youth. What, after all, was the difference? The action framed onstage is part of our lives, our towns, our society. Alex Ferns gives 110% in his performance and totally makes the part his own. There is intelligence, cunning, defiance, courage, ruthlessness, and absolutely no compromise in Byrne’s character and all these qualities shine through in Fern’s amazing performance. This revival by Scottish Theatres Consortium rings as true today as 30 years ago.
 
 
Onstage Scotland
by Michael Cox
 
One of the most clichéd statements in the English language is that truth is stranger than fiction. Interestingly, what The Hard Man offers is fictionalised truth.
 
Co-written by Tom McGrath and Jimmy Boyle, the play is a dramatic account of Boyle’s exploits in the Glaswegian crime scene and subsequent imprisonment.
Whether any of the events are true or not is almost a moot point: the play is much more interested in posing questions than in supplying answers.
Act one follows the rise and fall of Johnny Byrne. His ascent in crime is presented vaudeville-like, with a few actors playing multiple ‘larger than life’ roles, and clever staging that is almost always entertaining. Act two walks a much harsher path, following Byrne’s incarceration and the demeaning penal system of which he becomes a part.
 
With such an ambitious production, one could have been forgiving had director Phillip Breen managed to drop a few balls. Instead, he has created a riveting production that is almost flawless in its execution. For a play that is set firmly in the past, the action consistently feels modern and relevant. It is well designed, skilfully staged and contains brilliant performances from the ensemble. 
 
However, for such a production it is vital that the right performer be cast as the lead, and it is here that Breen plays his ace. Alex Ferns is able to play the comedy and drama with equal weight, and he pulls off the near-impossible task of making a revolting animal into a tragic hero. His depiction of Byrne is enthralling from the start, and his performance lingers long past the curtain call.
 
There are many reasons why the current production of The Hard Man could have failed, but instead what has emerged is without question one of the year’s best productions. Exhilarating, chilling and thought-provoking, this should not be missed.


Informed Edinburgh
by Domenica Gouto
 
The Hard Man – playing at Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre this week is much like the violence it portrays: disturbing, unpleasant, yet still fascinating to watch.
 
Phillip Breen’s production of the ground-breaking play by Tom McGrath and gangster-cum-artist Jimmy Boyle has a suitably fast-paced, edgy feel, forcing the audience to contemplate the roots of violence, even as it depicts its hideous effects.
 
A fictionalised account of Boyle’s own life of crime, the play traces the rise of “hard man” Johnny Byrne from petty thief, terrorising the streets of Glasgow with his brothers, to criminal overlord running an illegal money-lending operation throughout Gorbals. It then offers an unsettling glimpse into his time in prison, serving a life sentence for a murder he is adamant he did not commit, and the brutal power struggles that he engaged in with the prison officers.
No doubt Boyle’s involvement helped lend the work its gritty, authentic feel, enhanced by the script’s sharp, witty writing and solid dose of hard-edged black humour. The production strikes a fine line between highlighting the poverty, alienation, and desperation that allow the creation of a culture of violence, without going so far as to justify or celebrate that violence. Indeed, even as scenes of vivid brutality are enacted on stage in stylized slow motion, with surreal musical accompaniment, these actions are meant to shock, not delight the viewer.
 
The story and setting are brought vibrantly to life through strong performances by all the cast. Many of the actors involved play multiple roles, yet the switches are seamless, and each character comes across distinctly.
 
Alex Ferns delivers a magnetic performance in the central role of Johnny Byrne, infusing the so-called “Gentle Terror” with a mix of egoism, sly wit, and underhanded cunning that renders the man as intriguing as he is repulsive. It’s a demanding, extremely physical role that visits some dark places, yet Ferns delivers a unflaggingly high-energy performance that is the beating heart of the show.
 
Perhaps the most compelling element of the show is the realisation that such brutality is not confined solely to the criminal underworld and its denizens; instead, it’s a distressing element of the very system set up to eliminate such tendencies in society. The Hard Man premiered in 1977, but, rather alarmingly, it hasn’t lost any of its relevance today. Violence is still frighteningly prevalent even within mainstream society, as are the conditions which lead to its acceptance. For this reason, the play provides audiences with a valuable reminder that this Glasgow gangsterland of the 1960s is not as distant from our current reality as perhaps we’d like to think. 
 

 
 


Cara Kelly. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Nicky Elliott, Alex Ferns, Iain Robertson. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Alex Ferns, Nicky Elliott, Stewart Porter. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Iain Robertson, Nicky Ellitott, Stewart Porter, Alex Ferns. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Iain Robertson, Nicky Ellitott, Stewart Porter, Alex Ferns. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Cara Kelly. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Alex Ferns. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Alison O'Donnell, Alex Ferns. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Alison O'Donnell. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Alex Ferns, Paul Morrow, Nicky Elliott, Iain Robertson, Alison O'Donnell. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Alex Ferns, Paul Morrow, Nicky Elliott. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Paul Morrow. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Alison O'Donnell. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Alex Ferns. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Iain Robertson, Alex Ferns, Nicky Elliott. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Alex Ferns. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Paul Morrow, Alex Ferns. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Paul Morrow. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Alex Ferns. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Alex Ferns. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Stewart Porter, Nicky Elliott. Photo © Pete Le May
  

Alex Ferns. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Iain Robertson, Alex Ferns, Nicky Elliott. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Iain Robertson, Alex Ferns, Nicky Elliott. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Nicky Elliott, Alex Ferns, Iain Robertson. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Alex Ferns. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Set design by Max Jones. Lighting by Tina MacHugh. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Set design by Max Jones. Lighting by Tina MacHugh. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Set design by Max Jones. Lighting by Tina MacHugh. Photo © Pete Le May
  
  

 
 



 Flyer design by Pete Le May
   
 

 
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