When Soho theatre declined to re-book Chris McGlade’s Forgiveness over its use of racial epithets, the show became a “free speech” cause celebre. It’s now touring, and merits attention, not least because McGlade clearly pours his 57-year life, his heart and his soul into it. It contains a fierce defence of working-class culture that demands to be heard, and a remarkable account, too, of McGlade’s father’s murder. But the show has taken on ballast since premiering at the 2019 Edinburgh fringe. It’s three-hours-plus here, and starts to groan under the weight of everything McGlade’s stuffed into it.
Its first half addresses political correctness and what McGlade sees as the stifling of free speech. And worse, of “our ability to laugh at each other comfortably” – the pressure valve that makes tough lives livable. Until the woke mandarins outlawed it, that’s how multicultural working-class life had always been, McGlade claims, with ample reference to happy memories of his wise-cracking dad. You may not always be convinced. The picture painted of a golden age of working-class (or any class) racial harmony is a bit of stretch. He stereotypes “the middle-class establishment” just as crudely as he complains of his own class being stereotyped. And the call for a proletarian revolution is undermined, just a bit, by McGlade’s boast that he voted Tory in 2019.
But plenty of his arguments are persuasive, and bracing to hear in this age of Red Walls and rancorous social division. One might wish they were bound more tightly to the show’s second half, when McGlade narrates his 77-year-old father’s murder, and his own journey to forgiving the killer. The connection is tenuous though, and this act is narratively baggy, as our host takes the story forward via marital breakdown, depression and his various unrealised childhood dreams.
But what can’t be gainsaid is the emotional candour, which is striking, or McGlade’s skill as a raconteur and old-school joke-teller. Prowling the front rows without use of a mic, part-preacher, part-poet, part-clown, he holds his audience rapt in this furious testament of working-class alienation, redemption and pride.
Chris McGlade is at the Halifax Playhouse on Friday, then touring.