The story of a talented composer whose hopes of fame are broken when a local contemporary becomes a music superstar gave theatre Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus the plot of which receives an Irish comic spin in Chasing Bono. The Salieri is Neil, a Dublin schoolboy who is certain of fame and gold records until a student called Paul renames himself Bono and becomes a rock star of Mozartian impact.
The 90-minute play is adapted from I Was Bono’s Doppelganger, a memoir by Neil McCormick, now music critic for the Daily Telegraph, about the shock of seeing four schoolmates grow up to become U2. The dramatists are Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, who turned McCormick’s book into a movie, more darkly called Killing Bono, but are most cherished for their great TV comedies, Porridge and Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?
The writers perhaps nod to the sitcom in confining the main action to a kitchen, and to the plays of Martin McDonagh in making its occupant an Irish gangster-gagster, Danny, who has Neil kidnapped to ghostwrite Danny’s life in crime. That storyline is invented – as in Amadeus, a historically true situation is operatically exaggerated – but the interleaved flashbacks of school and early gigs are McCormick’s autobiographical anecdotes.
La Frenais’ and Clement’s comic expertise shows in their construction and timing of punchlines (when Paul asks to be known forthwith as Bono, Neil warns him that “he sounds like a dog biscuit”), and their contrivance of a brilliantly funny finale, featuring a mournful Bono in an RTÉ radio studio.
The production sometimes seems uncertain about whether Neil’s songs have been fairly or unfairly neglected, and some may wish Bono to be more directly satirised. But Shane O’Regan uncannily captures Bono’s look and sound; Niall McNamee makes Neil’s sense of failure funnily painful; and Farzana Dua Elahe, as Neil’s girlfriend Gloria, achieves the delicate balance of playing the only straight part in a comedy. This portrait of underperformance doesn’t suffer from the problem itself.
• At Soho theatre, London, until 19 January.