Be Near Me takes us to Dalgarnock, a small parish on the Ayrshire coast that doesn't exist but which we get to know very well by the end of the evening. Half its population sings Orange marching songs and half IRA drinking ballads; both halves regard the English with affectionate contempt. Many of the working-age population have never crawled from the scrapheap upon which Margaret Thatcher tossed them. Its youth are boorish but harmless; its elders like a drink but are harmless, too. Formal education is neither here nor there but self-improvement is common. People have a passion for truth-telling and the ancient Scottish art of flyting.
It is into this community, some years before the play starts, that an Oxbridge-educated English priest called David Anderton has been thrown. He is bored by his flock, many of whom nevertheless find they half like this cuckoo in their nest. If he is enthusiastic for any of his parishioners, it is the teenagers whom he teaches part-time. He knows what hip-hop is, joshes with them about their love of Puff Daddy, and can text. Sometimes he takes them to remote beauty spots. He is particularly fond of the boys.
One drunken night a youth called Craig ends up back at the priest's house. Wine is taken, as is Ecstasy. Father David gets quite giddy with the excitement of it all and gives Craig a couple of pecks on the face. "Cut it out," says Craig. "By all means," says David, chagrined. But they fall asleep hand in hand and in the morning are discovered by Mrs Poole, the canny housekeeper who is dying neglect acutely. Soon it is all around town. A Vicky Pollard type paints "Peedo" on the church wall. PC McPlod pays a visit. The bishop is not impressed. In an excess of righteous candour, David implicates himself in court. The parish of St Ogilvie, named after a hanged Catholic convert, has, after five centuries, another martyr, at least in David's mind.
And here lies the problem: who among the audience would agree? Rarely have I spent a night in the theatre feeling so unsympathetic to a protagonist. The wimpish sexual assault is nothing next to David's other character failings, mostly minor in themselves but cumulatively damning. Every time a character laid into him, I couldn't think of an effective riposte, and nor could he. He was indeed condescending to the local culture. He was more interested in expensive booze and secular music than communion wine and hymns. He did not love his fellow man. When they sought spiritual solace, he gave them gobbets of his education. His housekeeper has his number when she says he makes their problems look smaller than they are. Even after her funeral, he is keener to talk to her widower about the wine he, David, has chosen ("exactly right") than the man's loss. That he recommends Bach for the service over his favourite, Chopin, can surely not be meant to represent progress. His mother, an Edinburgh writer played comfily - but without the required Maggie Smith accent - by Colette O'Neil, says in his defence: "You look at things with feeling; you see the shape of things." It is lukewarm mitigation for anyone, let alone a mother, to make.
David is not helped by being played by Ian McDiarmid, whose nasal voice and Mr Burns profile become extremely irritating. David is frequently accused of being an actor so it is hard to know whether one should criticise McDiarmid for his actorly performance, but actorly, though very detailed, it is. Instead, the star of the show is its director, John Tiffany of Black Watch fame, who conjures a whole town from the spare stage. Even as it descends into courtroom melodrama, Be Near Me remains watchable. But only once does it become vital, and that is immediately after the interval, when its tone turns comic and we join a ghastly dinner party hosted by David for his fatuous bishop, played brilliantly by David McGranaghan. These minutes of Mike Leigh-level hilarity suggest that a more abrasive approach to the material and to David might have worked better. Yet McDiarmid, who adapted the play from Andrew O'Hagan's novel of the same name, sees in Father David's downfall a tragedy, not a black comedy. For the life of me, I could not see why.
Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times
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