How to classify Jack Docherty’s new storytelling Fringe show, Nothing But? It’s a romcom of sorts, and a meta-romcom at that, one that has its cake and eats it too. Alongside the romance narrative itself, it’s also a record of the attempt to create a romcom, and a commentary upon the genre more generally. Docherty’s monologue is steeped in allusions to films (Before Sunrise, When Harry Met Sally, the films of Richard Curtis and Hal Hartley), those narratives that play such a big part in shaping our fantasy lives, and his tale, at least semi-autobiographical, is partly a cautionary one, warning against the harm such fantasies can do.
At its heart is a story about a fleeting, perfect encounter at the Fringe and a lost romance which comes to haunt his life. Years later, at the Fringe once more, Docherty meets his dream girl again, but inevitably, this time is not so perfect. It follows a pattern of anticipation followed by disappointment or humiliation that Docherty establishes with other stories (a toilet disaster at an early birthday party, career upsets, a failed attempt at showbiz debauchery). It’s an inherently comic pattern, of course, and carefully distances him far from any conventional idea of the romantic lead. He fantasises about the role though – imagining the film of his story as ‘Summer Rain’, the poster an image of him and his lover on Arthur’s Seat, gazing out over the city. And he tries to get the film made, but that fails, too. It is given to his daughter to deliver a scathing judgement on the fixation that has left his real life and relationships uncherished, and she condemns his coveted memories of that encounter as little more than adolescent fantasy – fed by the phantasm of the manic pixie dream girl, such a romcom perennial.
In the end, rather than his dream girl, it is his daughter whom Docherty ends up running through the streets for, desperate to catch the bus before it pulls away and the estrangement between them deepens. Sitting next to her, he understands that while she is not yet ready to forgive him, there is still hope. We realise perhaps this is the real love story, obscured by all Docherty’s desperate searching for the perfect girl. For him, still clinging onto the fantasy of romantic lead, it’s a reluctant surrender, reminiscent of Larkin’s description of parents being pushed ‘to the side of their own lives’. But Docherty accepts happiness in a minor key; sitting next to his daughter, looking at the mucky tartan of the coach seat in front, rather than with his lover on Arthur’s Seat, in a scene so often played out in his mind. It’s interesting that both perspectives are wholly Scottish, fitting for a narrative so bound up in the Fringe and Edinburgh more generally, and, in its studied self-deprecation and comic melancholy, this is a tale to be added to the canon of other distinctively Scottish romcoms, like Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl.
The autobiographical implications of the story are important – lending an undeniable charge that Docherty exploits when describing the events of the past with a projected image of his younger self; the poignancy of ageing that bit more intense with the added aura and glamour of the celebrity body. The fact of celebrity also contributes to a weird gratefulness about the invitation to intimacy posed by Docherty’s seeming honesty. But the autobiography does also risk obscuring the skill of the work: the sophisticated device of the character of Docherty’s ‘daughter’ for example (who may or may not be his actual daughter), providing a light touch critique of his fixation. It’s important that the recognition of the superficiality of the manic pixie dream girl character comes from a female perspective, a way of calling out Docherty’s susceptibility to a misogynistic template which ensures any female characterisation is secondary to the male lead. The image we are left with at the end of the piece, Docherty sitting next to his daughter, chastised but hopeful, might be seen as an attempt to correct that narrative imbalance: with a more equitable, and more real relationship at the heart of the story.