Early in High Fidelity, Nick Hornby’s anti-hero Rob poses the ultimate chicken and egg that is the heart of his story, “What came first, the music or the misery?” With Chasing Bono, there is no chicken or egg. It’s not science. The answer for Neil will always be music.
In 2004, Neil McCormick, now the Daily Telegraph’s music critic, published his memoir I Was Bono’s Doppelganger, an insight into one man’s desire to reach international stardom on the music stage that comes crashing down thanks to a hefty mix of ego, Paul Hewson and Pepperoni Pizza. The book was later adapted for the big screen by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais as 2011’s Killing Bono. Now, Clement and La Frenais, under the direction of Gordon Anderson, have brought it to the stage.
The events of Chasing Bono start, as all good coming of age stories do, with a kidnapping. Local gangster Danny Machin (Denis Conway), feels he is being misrepresented in the local media and wants a decent writer to beef up his story. In walks, albeit reluctantly to begin with, our malcontent hero, McCormick (Niall McNamee). The unlikely relationship between Machin and McCormick develops and the quid pro quo that unfolds is that whilst Machin’s story is written, Neil becomes able to confront the shattered dreams of his past via some beautifully staged and poignantly told flashbacks.
With Chasing Bono, not only are you in the safe hands of the always reliable McCormick but you are guided by writing royalty thanks to Clement and La Frenais. The dialogue is razor-sharp and the relationships are as finely tuned as you’d expect from the writers of The Likely Lads, Porridge and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. Great material, however, can only be brought to life by great casting and Orla O’Connor, along with Director Gordon Anderson have hit the jackpot.
Niall McNamee guides us through McCormick’s life effortlessly. And by effortlessly, I mean employing great skill both musically and technically, always treading the fine line between musical genius and a depressed and disgruntled bloke. The moments of music are inspired, even the opening gambit of Pass The Pepperoni Pizza, which leaves you wondering, what if? What if McCormick said yes to Bono’s offer of releasing a song? What if they did go with Ian Dury’s label and got the hit but didn’t make any money? These moments exist thanks to the magic combination of writing, direction and McNamee’s hugely engaging performance.
Rather than letting the central character shine and allowing the others to take a back seat, the whole cast work together as a cohesive, water tight whole. Shane O’Regan’s Bono (whose name, thanks to the magic of the line, “sounds like a dog biscuit” will now always sound like a dog biscuit) strikes an alarming similarity to the man himself without either being an impersonation or caricature. Rather, he strikes an authentic and sympathetic tone, with O’Regan focusing on the boy who lost his mother at an early age rather than being a global superstar.
Similarly, the dynamic duo of hapless kidnappers turned confessors Danny Machin and Plugger Mulchay never stray into caricature thanks to the precision and faultless comic timing of Denis Conway and Ciarán Dowd. As brother Ivan, Dónal Finn captures well the struggle between supportive brother, frustrated musician and world wandering traveller. Niamh Bracken offers heart and soul as the older sister, being the bridge between Ma and Pa McCormick and Neil and Farzana Dua Elahe holds her own beautifully as Neil’s partner Gloria. She deals with the struggle of having a young child, a new relationship and largely absent partner with huge grace. When confronted about why he never ended up writing the song about her that he once promised, without missing a beat, McCormick, not incorrectly postulates that someone has already written a song about a Gloria.
With razor-sharp writing, direction, performances and design by Max Dorey, London’s Soho Theatre have continued their leaning towards presenting the very best in new writing in startling fashion here. In a time of year where the trend is for tinsel, carols and festive cheer, Chasing Bono is more about bacon sarnies, shattered dreams and teenage angst making it to theatre what The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl are to Christmas songs.
Chasing Bono is inspiring, beautifully told and full of heart. Inspired programming and highly recommended.
Chasing Bono runs at the Soho Theatre London until Saturday 19th january 2019. Full details here.