Chasing Bono review: Oh, what happened to U2, whatever happened to me…? ★★★★

A new play by The Likely Lads' Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais finds what it's looking for: the comedy in Bono's beginnings

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In 1970s Dublin, music-obsessed teenager Neil McCormick dreams of stardom and riches and so does his best mate Paul Hewson. Neil likes punk and pop and flounders in a succession of soon-to-be-forgotten bands, while Paul revels in rock, changes his name to Bono and his band name to U2…

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That’s the thumbnail premise for a fast and funny play about the pencil-thin line between success and failure. Written by comedy giants Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, it’s based on Neil McCormick’s memoir I was Bono’s Doppelgänger, which was adapted by Clement and La Frenais for the 2011 film Killing Bono.

But actually, it’s less about the origins of one of the world’s biggest bands and more about Bono’s unlucky friend – losers are funnier than winners, let’s face it – and we begin in 1987, with a desperate Neil being kidnapped by local gangster Danny Machin.

Machin thinks he’s unfairly represented in the press and wants Neil, now a writer, to compile a balanced account of his life; the latter wonders where his life has gone wrong and treats Machin as a father confessor.

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Denis Conway is Dublin gangster Danny Machin, and Niall McNamee plays writer Neil McCormick

On paper it’s an unwieldy structural device but it works astoundingly well, carving out a large percentage of the laughs and generating the crucial flashbacks – through foolish youth and early heartaches to grown-up equanimity.

We learn that Neil’s brother Ivan was an early member of the group that would become U2, before Neil coaxed him away to perform in his own ramshackle outfits. And though not a musical, there is music. Not the anthemic strains of U2 so much as the naive but affecting compositions of McCormick.

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Stella (Niamh Bracken) with McCormick brothers Ivan (Dónal Finn, left) and Neil

Casting director Orla O’Connor has done a wonderful job of putting together the play’s Irish ensemble, some of them fine singer/musicians. Niall McNamee has a tricky juggling act to keep comedy, drama and song balls in the air as Neil but he pulls it off superbly. And Dónal Finn really impresses as the passionate Ivan.

Denis Conway and Ciarán Dowd are an inspired double act as the would-be refined gangster Machin and his slow-on-the-uptake gopher Plugger.

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Costa del Crime: Plugger (Ciarán Dowd) and Machin (Denis Conway)

In slightly undernourished roles, Niamh Bracken as spunky Stella and Farzana Dua Elahe as long-suffering Gloria bring much wisdom to bear on the insanity of Neil’s world.

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Gloria (Farzana Dua Elahe) is a rock for Neil amid the music-industry’s stormy seas

And though Bono isn’t a huge character in the play, his casting definitely belongs to the “coup” category: Shane O’Regan looks and sounds astonishingly like the U2 frontman. And anyone hoping for a hatchet job should look elsewhere. This story has no truck with the self-promoting popinjay of the tabloid press but presents us with a decent, god-fearing bloke who retains a sensible head on his shoulders.

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Shane O’Regan plays Bono from self-assured schoolboy to shades-wearing rock ambassador

Neil McCormick was always the arrogant one of the two friends, the play insists. “I was convinced it was my destiny to become a rock star,” McCormick tells us in the programme notes. And though he didn’t, life hasn’t turned out too badly for the author, broadcaster and music journalist.

And so, into the play’s surprisingly short running time is packed much wisdom in depicting the yawning chasm between starry-eyed childhood dreams and adult actuality, between belief and self-belief. But the universal truth of “going where your skills are” is never rammed home.

Chasing Bono rattles and hums along thanks to snappy, no-flab direction from Gordon Anderson (The Catherine Tate Show, The Inbetweeners, Shameless). And a word for designer Max Dorey, whose compact and ingenious two-level set manages to be a grungy kitchen, a record executive’s office, a radio studio and even, via the most economic of touches, a boat.

Crucially, however, this is a comedy and in that sense Chasing Bono really brings home the bacon. As you would expect from the safe hands of Clement and La Frenais. The gags come thick and fast – one simple misunderstanding of the word philanthropist made me roar.

The pair are known and loved for their classic sitcoms, including The Likely Lads and the follow-up Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, Porridge and Auf Wiedersehen Pet – the Achtung Baby of their career, if you will.

But music is in their makeup, too: La Frenais, from Whitley Bay, was a songwriter before he was first introduced to Essex-born BBC studio manager Clement in 1962. La Frenais co-wrote one of THE great theme tunes of all time in the melancholy masterpiece Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?

One of their personal favourites from an enviable career is Still Crazy, their 1998 ageing-rockers comedy film. And of course Chasing Bono revisits the city and the background of one of their greatest hits – writing the screenplay to Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments for the big screen in 1991.

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 06: (L to R) Neil McCormick, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais pose outside the Soho Theatre to launch their new Irish comedy "Chasing Bono" on November 6, 2018 in London, England. Pic Credit: Dave Benett *** Local Caption *** Neil McCormick; Dick Clement; Ian La Frenais
Neil McCormick (left) with Dick Clement (centre) and Ian La Frenais

Clement and La Frenais, at 81 and 82 respectively, are of course, utter marvels. When I spoke to them in 2017, they had an almost ridiculous number of irons in the fire.

There was a new sitcom for Gold about the modern-day monarchy called Henry IX, the reboot of Porridge and the documentary My Generation, about the 1960s and narrated by Michael Caine. But also a war film, a play about Harpo Marx, a TV cop show set in the 60s and another one about a Spanish football team. “You can’t ever just have one project, you’ve got to have at least six,” says La Frenais.

With all that on the go and Chasing Bono being as good as it is, you can see how this enduring, reliably funny team have very much gone where their skills are.

Do catch it while you can.

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Chasing Bono runs at the Soho Theatre until 19 January 2019