Beard: A Few Moments in the Life of Roy McDonald

Warning: This review may contain spoilers.

Downtown London has its characters, but there is only one Roy McDonald. The bearded street poet and “professional conversationalist” has been an indelible presence in the Forest City for decades, but he is as much an enigma as well. This play is not wholly successful in helping an audience understand him, but it is a compelling portrait of a very different local eccentric.

This play is essentially a series of vignettes about McDonald’s life, first as a disruptive free thinker in school, then dropping out to pursue a career or to join the air force only to find both ambitions a mismatch. Instead, Roy travels the country as a vagabond and writer until he ultimately returns to London to become a unique figure in the city, dismissed by some and adored by others.

Seeing Roy McDonald around London can lead to a whole list of assumptions, but this play has a deft way of thwarting them all. For instance, we have learned of a man who has the spirit and talent of a poet, but is unable to play in time with society’s expectations. As a result, the episodic confrontations are largely of McDonald butting heads against others with his eccentric ways, even when he tries to cooperate. For instance, you’d figure the Air Force would appreciate a man who respects the role of the unglamorous support crews like McDonald, but the oxymoron of military intelligence strikes for him. Unfortunately, you never get a really satisfactory insight into how McDonald’s character developed like that beyond his alcoholism, but you will understand his presence in London with an bizarre style but undeniable charm.

To bring this enigmatic biography to life, Chris McAuley is wonderfully convincing, portraying McDonald as a bedraggled eccentric who feels as perpetually confused about the world as it is about him. Throughout the play, McAuley firmly keeps that appeal strong and steady even as his character becomes seemingly stranger as the years progress. However, those mannerisms are then increasingly counterbalanced by the fact that McDonald conquered his alcoholism while keeping his artistic spirit in his own eccentric way. The overall effect created by McAuley is of a man balanced and stable in life in his own strange way.

Edward Rozman, Patsy Morgan and Greg Mate by contrast have to be much more protean by necessity with their multiple roles. However, that does not prevent them from being excellent supporting players. I was especially impressed with Morgan’s command of accents to differentiate her characters clearly, such as Freya, while her Woodstock first aid volunteer character has a refreshing feeling of a normal person trying to service that overpopulated event. By contrast, Rozman plays the various authority figures, parental or otherwise, in McDonald’s life convincingly as they try understand this wayward soul and fail miserably, even when he tries to play by their rules. Finally, Greg Mate has an irresistible charm even if most of his roles are essentially various versions of working-class blokes who try to help McDonald with his problems with authority figures or his own demons as best he can. In doing so, Mate grants the story a welcome comradely warmth to show that Roy may be a person by himself, but he is never alone.

Framing all of this, the stagecraft has an attractively evocative flavour, reminding us of the Occupy movement with the tents in Victoria Park and the basic bohemian idealism that McDonald has been living for years. Furthermore, the scenery changes are handled efficiently with not just some pieces of furniture, but with also larger props on wheels to be easily positioned and removed as scenes change. The result is a fluid stage that seems messy like Roy, but there is a subtle hidden beauty that is present amid the clutter if you look hard enough with some understanding.

Finally, the ending has a sweet tone as McAuley sings to the audience in character, only to be joined by Roy himself. That itself is a tribute to such a play like this: playfully eccentric with a knowing lyricism in word and manner that may not give you answers about Roy, but it can give you some perspective in a most entertaining way.