Friday, 23 September 2016

The National Theatre of Scotland - Ten Years That Shook The World

When the announcement came that a National Theatre of Scotland was to be formed, it ended decades and possibly centuries of wrangling over a desire for artistic self-determination in the country's thriving theatre scene on a par with opera, ballet and classical music. When this new body announced in 2004 that the company's inaugural artistic director would be Vicky Featherstone, with John Tiffany as associate director for new writing and Neil Murray as executive producer, it seemed to some who had championed long-serving directors from major building-based institutions as a leftfield choice.

As it turned out, with an unexpected major international hit on their hands in the company's first year after it was launched in 2006 in the form of Black Watch, Gregory Burke's bombastic theatrical collage on life in the military frontline post Iraq War, it was an inspired one.

Featherstone had come from new writing company, Paines Plough, and had strong ties with theatre in Scotland from her early days directing on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe at the Gilded Balloon. She later directed at the Traverse Theatre, where Tiffany was literary director, and where he was already working his magic on Burke's breakthrough play, Gagarin Way. Murray had worked at 7:84 Scotland, and had taken over from Michael Boyd at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow when Boyd departed to the Royal Shakespeare Company. Murray's appointment was a then rare occurrence of a producer running a theatre building.

With former director of Cumbernauld Theatre Simon Sharkey appointed as an associate director for community and education-based work, this gang of four represented a younger generation of theatre makers who weren't interested in creating monolithic structures, but would rather break moulds in a way that the considerable financial resources behind the NTS would allow. When Featherstone and co declared that their model of the company would not be based in an existing theatre, but would be something they defined as a theatre without walls, it sounded as radical a notion as it remains ten years on.

The fact that the new NTS was named as it was rather than the Scottish National Theatre was making a subtle but significant semantic point that was also political. Being of Scotland spoke of inclusion and diversity. These are both words too often bandied around and rendered meaningless by bureaucrats and politicians, but here were a statement of intent given flesh and blood significance by the company's progressive and outward-looking reach.

The company's first statement came with Home, a series of events performed simultaneously over one night in the towns, cities, villages and islands of Scotland by a multitude of cross-disciplinary collaborators culled from the cream of the country's professional theatre scene working with a specific sense of place in mind. It was to be the NTS' contribution to the 2006 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, however, that would put the company unexpectedly on the map in a major way.

Black Watch was knitted together by Burke and John Tiffany from interviews conducted with ex squaddies from the famed Black Watch regiment who had returned home to Fife after the Iraq War. Using an astonishing array of music, sound, movement and visuals, Tiffany's production became an epic statement on what it means to be on the frontline even as the show's mix of forms looked to Scotland's popular theatrical heritage. Performed in an old army drill hall as part of the Traverse Theatre's Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme, the production's furiously choreographed delivery raised the bar considerably in terms of what Scottish theatre could be. Nothing would be the same again.

The programmes that followed were a mix of new work, revivals of the contemporary Scottish canon and reinventions of classical plays. Success bred confidence and ambition. There were community projects, works in progress and development work seemingly going on in every corner of the country, even as the company's flagship shows travelled the world. There were seasons of work from the Middle East and Latin America, twenty-four hour marathons of five minute plays performed live and broadcast online. All life was here in a relentless and at times exhausting itinerary. At times it seemed as if a new NTS production was opening somewhere in some country or other every week.

With an in demand Tiffany stepping down from the company following his production of teenage vampire story, Let The Right One In, Featherstone drafted in Graham McLaren, who had previously run Theatre Babel in Glasgow prior to working abroad for several years. Steeped in Glasgow's theatrical history, McLaren brought a new dynamism to the company through productions of Ena Lamont Stewart's Men Should Weep and a musical reimagining of Joe Corrie's play, In Time O' Strife.

When Featherstone left the NTS to take over the artistic directorship of the Royal Court Theatre in London, she was replaced by Laurie Sansom, who had previously brought his production of Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie to Edinburgh while artistic director of the Royal & Derngate Theatre in Northampton. Sansom took his time before setting out his store, but when he did, any criticisms of his appointment were silenced by the scale of the undertaking.

The James Plays was Rona Munro's epic trilogy of Scottish history plays presented in co-production with Edinburgh International Festival and the National Theatre of Great Britain. While commissioned by Featherstone, Sansom's production was presented over an entire day at Edinburgh Festival Theatre in a huge production that featured Sophie Gabrol from Scandic cop show, The Killing, in a large ensemble cast that also starred Blythe Duff.

While Sansom did similarly fine work on another Muriel Spark work, The Driver's Seat, and in The 306: Dawn, a haunting look at the lives of soldiers executed in World War I, the end of the NTS' current era which arguably began with Black Watch looks set to be marked by a show that could be seen as that show's equally potty-mouthed kid sister.

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour was adapted by Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall from The Sopranos, Oban born writer Alan Warner's tragicomic novel about a teenage schoolgirl choir let loose in the big city. When Vicky Featherstone returned to the NTS to direct it at the 2015 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, it grabbed the audience by the scruff of the neck like a girl gang Black Watch high on alcopops and the promise of what the future might bring beyond their underage binging. This beautiful and heartbreaking study of young women on the verge has since toured internationally, dragging the NTS into its second decade with a sound and fury that signifies something very real.

As it prepares to move to its new administrative home and rehearsal space in Rockvilla, a former cash and carry situated in the North of Glasgow currently being developed into complex described by the NTS as an 'engine room for Scottish theatre', the move has provoked some to suggest that the company's theatre without walls concept has come to an end.

Either way, the NTS is at a major turning point. This year's surprise departure of Sansom as artistic director after three years in post came at a time when The James Plays was touring the world. It also came shortly after it had been announced that Murray and McLaren would be leaving to become joint artistic directors of Ireland's de facto national company, the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

With Featherstone's ongoing tenure at the Royal Court, Tiffany's Tony award winning production of Once on Broadway, and his production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on the West End, it is clear that the NTS tentacles are reaching out to the world.

With only Sharkey still in place from the company's founding artistic team and no obvious boot-room successor to Sansom, it is also clear that the NTS is likely to evolve into a very different company to how it began, especially with funding cuts biting deep right across the arts establishment. Who the next artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland – and an artistic director it will be – remains to be seen. Whoever it is - and the NTS need to take their time to get it right - they will have several tough acts to follow. With Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour leading the charge towards the future, the next ten years of the NTS look set to be an even bigger adventure than the last.

BBC Arts website, September 24th 2016 to tie in with the screening of National Theatre of Scotland: A Dramatic Decade on September 27th 2016.


Charlotte Church - Bringing the Late Night Pop Dungeon to Neu! Reekie!

It's after midnight on Saturday night in a gloriously anachronistic North Wales holiday camp, and the atmosphere is electric. Over the previous two days, revellers gathered for the Stewart Lee curated All Tomorrow's Parties festival have moved between alt.rock, free jazz and John Cage inspired experiments.

Now, however, a packed audience gazes on a scarlet-swathed stage, having even less of a clue what to expect. When a band clad in golden robes enters, it is not the surviving members of Sun Ra's Arkestra, who will close the festival the next night wearing similarly sparkly apparel. Sporting a shimmering gold lame leotard, the young woman at the centre of the spectacle looks as showbiz as it gets.

As she and her entourage open with a version of Laura Palmer's Theme from David Lynch's cult TV show, Twin Peaks, one could be forgiven for presuming that Club Silencio, the mysterious nightclub in Lynch's film, Mulholland Drive, had set up shop in Pontin's. The selection of equally tasteful cover versions of songs by the likes of Nine Inch Nails, Sugababes and Super Furry Animals that follows, each introduced with language as colourful as a Tiger Bay sailor on shore leave, suggests otherwise.

Mid-way through, Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart builds from an acoustic ballad to something that sounds akin to Shirley Bassey fronting Nirvana. This is not only the most avant-garde moment of the entire festival. In its jaw-dropping brilliance, it is possibly the most expectation-confounding musical moment ever.

The woman onstage is Charlotte Church, the former child star who once sang for the pope, took on Rupert Murdoch at the Leveson Inquiry, and who has become an anti-austerity icon. As the gold lame leotard hints at too, Church is also ringmistress of her own destiny, and this is her Late-Night Pop Dungeon.

Next week, Church brings her ten-piece Pop Dungeon band to Edinburgh to headline Celts, the latest genre-busting extravaganza from spoken-word cabaret night Neu! Reekie! Designed to tie in with the National Museum of Scotland's current exhibition of the same name, if Church's ATP appearance is anything to go by, Edinburgh is unlikely to know what's hit it.

“I just wanted to do something fun,” Church says of the roots of her Late Night Pop Dungeon. “Looking at the political situation and how down my lefty friends were, I thought it would be good to do something that was really up. I didn't really have much new stuff on the go, so we thought we'd just go for it. We've done it three times now, and we've changed it every time. We have songs dropping into other songs, so when we do En Vogue's Don't Let Go, at one point it goes into 21st century Schizoid Man by King Crimson.

“Also, for quite a long time I'd said no to everything, partly because I didn't want to confuse people anymore, because I've had quite a few metamorphoses, which is just the way things have gone, and also because I just wanted to be a mum. Now, I've started saying yes to things I might have been scared of before, and as a result, my career and my life are now more varied and more rich than ever before.”

In this respect, thirty-year old Church is en route to becoming a full-on twenty-first century renaissance woman. This year alone, as well as taking the Late Night Pop Dungeon to Glastonbury, where the previous year she'd interviewed Russian female punk provocateurs Pussy Riot, Church took part in the inaugural Festival of Voice at Cardiff's Millennium Centre. As well as singing alongside former Velvet Underground co-pilot John Cale, she took the title role in The Last Mermaid, a music theatre reimagining of Hans Christian Anderson's The Little Mermaid, which she co-created with composer Sion Trefor and songwriter, Pop Dungeon guitarist and life partner Jonathan Powell.

To trail the festival, Church presented an edition of BBC 2's arts magazine show, Artsnight, interviewing Laura Mvula and Welsh alt-pop singer Gwenno as well as looking at a choir project instigated by the National Theatre of Wales.

“We talked about voicelessness,” Church says of The Last Mermaid, “and the show came out of that. I worked on it with an intensity like I've never done before, but I'm not sure theatre's for me. I'm not very good at repetition. I'm more of a flitter. I was absolutely banjaxed by the end of it, so I'm in no rush to do theatre again.”

That Church boxed off such a varied itinerary at all is testament to her polymathic talents. That she did it without either a manager or agent speaks volumes about how much she stands apart from the celebrity treadmill in a wilfully singular fashion.

“I don't have any people,” she jokes. “I'm my own manager, but because things are going so well just now, that's getting quite difficult.”

An example of this comes the day we're originally supposed to talk. Church's phone keeps ringing out, until eventually she texts to apologise, but she completely forgot that we'd arranged the interview, and she was at the cinema with her two kids.

Even so, Church answers all email inquiries herself, responding to whatever interests her. This was the case with Neu! Reekie!when she was first approached by the event's organiser and co-host, Michael Pedersen.

“Michael's language was so flowery and descriptive,” she says, “and it really caught my eye.”

For someone who was a victim of the News of the World phone hacking scandal, such openness is a risky strategy, though it hasn't stopped her addressing anti-austerity marches, showing public support for Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and frothing with frustrated rage on social media following the Brexit referendum result. After being vilified by the tabloid press, however, Church is way beyond caring what people think.

“I'd learnt my craft and sung around the world with orchestras,” she says. “I had my credentials, but I was being portrayed in the tabloids as this ladette chav slag. That annoyed me, because it wasn't accurate, but I felt powerless against it.”

In her statement following an out of court settlement with the News of the World, Church declared that those behind the hacking weren't sorry, but 'only sorry they got caught.'

“The fact that absolutely none of the recommendations made at the Leveson inquiry have been taken up is a bit of a shame,” she says flatly.

If Leveson marked the beginning of Church's politicisation, she remains unrepentant in giving voice to her views.

“If people disagree with me,” she says, “then what of it at the end of the day? Some people don't agree with me and explain their point quite eloquently, other people completely attack me, but it's really water off a duck's back to me. The world is such a fucked up place just now. There's so much propaganda, and so much misinformation about things being put out, that you have to keep questioning it. I won't stop campaigning until we find some kind of way through it.”

In terms of her artistic future, Church plans to release an album, “collaborating with as many people as I can.”

There is the possibility of a TV comedy, although again this will be on Church's terms.

“I've no interest in doing scripted comedy,” she says. “I did a couple of pilots for the BBC which I think were quite sparky, but for me something that's funny has to be super super open. Basically I'm a lazy bitch who doesn't want to have to learn any lines,” she laughs.

One other long-cherished project remains in limbo.

“I've been trying to make a documentary on education for years,” she says, “but the BBC aren't having any of it.”

Church talks about Sir Kenneth Robinson, the influential educationalist whose ideas focus not on traditional exam-based achievements, but on using learning to awaken creativity.

“It's so simple,” Church enthuses, “this idea that schooling can be some kind of individual revolution. The effect these things take on human beings is in childhood, when you most have the ability to take things in and be creative. The way we're doing it just now for these gorgeous little kids is so antiquated.”

As for the Pop Dungeon, Church wants it to remain “a little gem. I'll do bits and bobs with it, but I don't want it to be a cash cow. I want to just keep it light and constantly keep reworking it, so it remains a special thing for everyone involved.”

This is a mantra for everything she gets involved in.

“In my life and work I just follow my nose,” she says. “I've been really lucky in the last couple of years to have had such fantastic opportunities, and that, coupled with my new approach of positive action, has really helped make things happen. Right now, I'm all about just saying yes.”

Charlotte Church's Late Night Pop Dungeon plays Neu! Reekie! - Celts, with Ette, Liz Lochhead, Lyre, Loki and Becci Wallace, Lomond Campbell at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, September 23.

The Herald, September 23rd 2016


Thursday, 22 September 2016

John Samson: '1975 – 1983'

Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow until April 17th
Four stars

When the then twenty-two year old world darts champion Eric Bristow is captured throwing the tools of his trade to victory at the end of Arrows (1979), John Samson's 1979 study of the self-styled crafty Cockney as he tours working men's clubs inbetween being interviewed on local radio, Bristow is invested with a poetry that makes him appear part Robin Hood, part pop star. Similarly, in Samson's first film, Tattoo (1975), the closing tableaux of artfully posed illustrated men and women resemble inked-in Greek statues.

Kilmarnock-born Samson may have only made five short films between the ages of 29 and 37, but his fascination for largely working class sub-cultural fringes was on a par with Kenneth Anger, while pre-dating some of Jeremy Deller's work. Samson followed Tattoo with Dressing For Pleasure (1977), which unzips the assorted rubber, leather and latex-based fetish-wear scenes, and briefly features Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren and his SEX shop assistant, Jordan. After this, the steam train enthusiasts of Britannia (1978) is a surprising diversion, although it and Arrows lay bare worlds similarly occupied by enthusiastic obsessives who are given rare voice.

Only the more polemical The Skin Horse (1983), a ground-breaking personal study of disabled people's relationship with sex originally screened on Channel 4, is invested with any kind of narration care of actor and on-camera host, Nabil Shaban. In this way, as he lays bare all the things hidden from polite society, Samson remains compassionately curious rather than voyeuristic.

While this first gallery presentation of Samson's work might have benefited from being framed within the socio-economic context of an era that scaled the post-permissive dawning of Thatcherism, the films themselves remain vital touchstones of a pre camera phone, pre YouTube age when underground culture was a genuinely samizdat form of community.

The List, September 2016


Billy Elliot The Musical

Edinburgh Playhouse
Five stars

A big National Coal Board sign looms large at the opening of Lee Hall and Elton John's decade-old musical stage version of Hall and director Stephen Daldry's hit turn of the century film. In a tale of one little boy's liberation as a dancer against the backdrop of the 1980s miners strike, however, the Durham Miners banner and the 'Save Our Community' sash held aloft matter more. It is this call to arms that forms the heart of Daldry's production, as Billy becomes a potty-mouthed beacon of hope in a situation where picket line, thin blue line and chorus line rub uneasily up against each other.

Given such a context, there is bound to be some pretty grown-up stuff going on here, be it the institutionalised homophobia in Billy's village, the class war going on within it, or Billy's grieving for his dead mother that drives his every move. And, as so magnificently choreographed by Peter Darling, what moves they are. Watching Lewis Smallman as one of four alternating Billys and fellow child actor Elliot Stiff as his friend Michael razzle-dazzle it up while wearing women's clothes requires unabashed confidence as well as technical skill, and these boys are fearless as they revel in every show-stopping moment. Dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson's daughter Debbie, meanwhile, as played by Evie Martin, provides the cheek.

The second half opens with a political puppet show straight out of Spitting Image in a show in which entertainment and agit-prop themselves transcend their humble roots to become something bigger. This might just be the best advert for community, arts education and international socialism ever.

The Herald, September 23rd 2016


Wednesday, 21 September 2016

The Rise and Inevitable Fall of Lucas Petit

Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh
Four stars

The Lord moves in mysterious ways in Andy McGregor's new lo-fi musical fable, currently on an extensive tour by McGregor's own Sleeping Warrior Theatre Company in a co-production with Stirling's Macrobert Arts Centre and in association with the enterprising Showroom producing house. As introduced in the opening number performed by Ashley Smith and Darren Brownlie's unholy alliance between Lucifer and God, Lucas Petit is one of life's little guys, a man trapped in a soulless job and a loveless marriage, and whose sole pleasure is hanging out in the B&Q cafe on Saturday afternoons. Once temptation is thrust in his face, however, Lucas embarks on a comic book style adventure that takes him to Hell, but not necessarily back.

What initially resembles a 1960s style caper pastiche involving nightclub singer assassins, suitcases full of something shiny, and Nicola Sturgeon evolves over the eighty minutes of McGregor's own production into a witty, whip-smart and up to the minute satire on the roots of fanaticism. As Alasdair Hankinson's magnificently gormless Lucas becomes the worm that turns, his trajectory from would-be hero into messianic martyr is a sadly all too recognisable one.

As well as writing and directing the play, McGregor has written the fist-full of showtunes that illustrate Lucas' leap into the ideological void. This is played out on Alice Wilson's ingenious set that goes with it, in which everything is make-believe right up until the play's finest moments. With corrupted belief systems seemingly inspiring hate crimes on a daily basis right now, McGregor and co have created a little piece of theatrical dynamite.

The Herald, September 22nd 2016


Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Joseph Chaikin Obituary

Joseph Chaikin, actor and director; born September 16, 1935; died June 22, 2003

Joseph Chaikin, who has died aged sixty-seven, was a beautiful dreamer. Right up to his death, when the weak heart he had suffered from since childhood finally failed, this purest and most visionary of theatre directors was still questing after truth in the strangest of places.

Even after a year of creative activity that would have sapped the energy of men half his age, especially one struck near dumb with aphasia, Joe, always Joe, was auditioning for a new production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. That it never made it to completion is a strangely fitting swansong, because Joe never liked things to be too set in stone. He preferred the bloodrush creativity of rehearsals, and, if things ever slipped into formula, he'd likely as not mess everything up before moving on to something else, as he did with The Open Theatre, the legendary troupe he led, only to disband when it looked like they might go mainstream.

It could be a frustrating tendency for those around him. At times, even the audience seemed like an intrusion. But anyone who saw Shut Eye, Chaikin's 2002 Edinburgh Festival Fringe collaboration with Philadelphia's Pig Iron Theatre Co at the Traverse Theatre, will recognise that Joe Chaikin's truth came not from easy realism, but from free-association based flights of fancy and lateral thinking rooted in the experimental spirit of the 1960s New York avant-garde scene. The result, often in collaboration with major artists such as Samuel Beckett and Sam Shepard, was a woozily soporific sense of magic - playful and free on every level.

Joe Chaikin grew up in 1940s Brooklyn, a Russian-Jewish boy imbued with a depth, stillness and imagination beyond his years. There was authority there, too. He'd gather playmates on the streets and perform little playlets of Tarzan, a macho matinee idol whom Chaikin, weak with rheumatic fever, would never be. It was through the illness, from which he would never fully recover, that he spent two years in a children's hospital. Here he continued his fledgling play-acting, and on one occasion had one group of patients mime a narrative's actions while another group read out the script. It was Chaikin's first act of anti-naturalism. He was 10.

By the time he joined The Living Theatre in 1959 to perform in Jack Gelber's drug buddy Beatnik classic, The Connection, Chaikin had already dropped out of university in Des Moines and joined an artistic underground, which, steeped in the language of social revolution, was on the cusp of cutting loose.

By 1963, cellar-bar culture was at its height and the world was ripe for change, as Chaikin and a loose assemblage of fellow travellers pushed boundaries in makeshift venues, until, at a meeting of progressive thinking actors, and playwrights, The Open Theatre was born. It was open in that it embraced then fresh philosophical, political, and artistic avant-garde trends, and seemed to be setting the template for new forms of expression. Partly through the company he kept, which included the likes of Peter Brook on the RSC's 1966 anti-Vietnam play, US, Chaikin's work became legend. But he was smart enough to know when to call it quits, lest something become an institutionalised museum, disbanded The Open Theatre in 1973.

In 1975, Chaikin underwent a first round of open-heart surgery, but by the following year was refreshed enough to found another company, The Winter Project. His 1979 works with Sam Shepard, Tongues and Savage/Love, tethered a primal journey to the urge within to even less explicit narratives than before.

Chaikin's next collaboration with Shepard, 1984's The War in Heaven, a monologue for an angel who dies the same day he is born, was also seen in a new production much later on a Scottish stage, this time by 7:84. By the time Chaikin performed the original, however, his affinity with absurdism saw him somewhat prophetically perform Beckett's Texts For Nothing in 1981. He shut up shop on The Winter Project in 1983, and, in May 1984, endured a second bout of open-heart surgery. The strain prompted a stroke, which in turn left him aphasic. Chaikin went on, spent a year learning to say ''yes'', and gradually, painfully, adding on a ''no'' you suspect he didn't use as much.

In the years that followed, Chaikin performed The War in Heaven worldwide; taught and directed to inspirational acclaim; appeared in Me and My Brother, a movie by Robert Franks, alongside Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, and, in the last year alone, directed Medea and a play by Arthur Miller, as well as co-directing Shut Eye.

While Chaikin didn't make the Edinburgh trip for Shut Eye, preferring to stay in New York to work on his next gig, anyone who engaged him in conversation on the telephone will have been thrilled and humbled by the experience. Here was a man still alive to his own sense of wonder, and who spoke of Shepard and Beckett as his friends. This wasn't the name-dropping of some counter-cultural ambulance chaser claiming kin, but was the musing of an artistic equal, and a seeker who knew a thing or two as well.

What turned out to be Beckett's last poem before his own death in 1989, What Is the Word, was written for Chaikin in the same stuttering, two-steps-forward, one-leap-back syntax. There couldn't have been a warmer, more heartfelt tribute to a man whose whole life was about asking why as much as what.

Though Chaikin's final production never saw the light of day, the final speech of Uncle Vanya, in which Sonya makes an impassioned advocacy for life's struggle in the face of adversity, is one of a million epitaphs that could apply to Chaikin. Her final words are: ''We shall rest.''

Joe Chaikin never rested. Like Sonya, he knew the value of living, and, in the work he left behind, is living still in a place where ''what'' is the only word that matters.

The Herald, July 3rd 2003


Stephen Daldry and Lee Hall - Billy Elliot the Musical

When director Stephen Daldry was awarded a Herald Angel for his debut feature film after it premiered at Edinburgh Film Festival in 2000, it was one of the first of many plaudits for what was a relatively modest production. Given what has happened to the film since, it also showed the considerable foresight of those behind the awards. Billy Elliot, after all, went on to become an international phenomenon, with the Herald Angels' championing of the film recognised when this newspaper's name was displayed on billboards across the globe.

But Daldry and writer Lee Hall's tale of a working class boy who discovers the transcendent power of dance in the thick of the civil war that was the 1980s Miners Strike went further, scooping a multitude of awards, including three BAFTAS. Five years after the film was released, this seemingly local story was given fresh life with the arrival of Billy Elliot the Musical, reuniting Daldry, Hall and choreographer Peter Darling, as they got back to their theatrical roots in a project instigated by pop superstar Elton John.

After a decade that has seen the show take the West End and Broadway by storm prior to being seen worldwide, Billy Elliot the Musical finally embarks on its first UK tour which arrives in Edinburgh this week for a month-long run. It is an event that Daldry and Hall have been looking forward to for some time.

“I've been dying for this,” says Hall, who derived Billy Liar from an early script called Dancer, which was given a performed reading at the Live Theatre in Newcastle. “It's quite unusual to have to wait so long to tour a London show, and because Billy Elliot is written from my perspective of growing up in Newcastle, I think the show speaks to people outside London, so it's been a long time coming.”

Daldry concurs, pointing out that “The seeds of the show were in the north, and when we first did it we originally wanted to open in Newcastle, but we couldn't afford it, so in a sense the tour is very much about coming home.”

The roots of Billy Elliot the Musical date back to the film's very first screening at the Cannes Film Festival when it was still called Dancer. It was here that the stage version's final creative partner first declared an interest.

“We had what we thought was a small independent movie,” Daldry remembers of his screen debut after running the Gate and Royal Court theatres, “and no-one really had any expectations. By chance, Elton John and David Furnish happened to be in the audience, and it was Elton John who first suggested that it could be a musical. Then the film became this worldwide success, and Elton kept on badgering us. It was only his determination and tenacity that made it happen, and to be honest I think it's a much better fit onstage than as a film. It's getting back to its natural home.”

With John on board to write the music and Furnish a producer of the show, Daldry and Hall determined to invest Billy Elliot the Musical with substance as well as emotional power.

“We sat down,” says Hall, “and we said, if we can't make it better than the film, and if we can't make it more political than the film, then we're not going to do it. It's something that was historical, but now it feels like a contemporary drama. It's heartbreaking what's happening in the North-East of England. I thought they'd closed as much heavy industry as they could there, but now that the steelworks are being closed down it just makes things worse. It feels more like the 1980s now than it ever has done in my life. The Brexit vote is really affecting things, and that came out of thirty years of neglect. The time the play is set was a real watershed moment of post-war politics, and was the first time the state used the police to attack a state industry with violence against ordinary people”

Daldry points out how “1984 was the last great battle of the trade union movement. It was so painful and so emotional, because industry was completely decimated after that.”

To putting all this into a commercial musical, Daldry and Hall again looking to their theatrical roots.

“People these days tend to think of musicals in the tradition of Andrew Lloyd Webber,” says Hall, “but there's an important tradition as well that stems from Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop, which filtered through me watching 7:84's work when I was growing up. I wanted to make a political musical in that great tradition of British theatre, and do something that was a piece of protest, but which was also a good night out. When I started writing it, I thought, what would John McGrath do if he was doing a musical with Elton John?”

The politics of the show almost scuppered a performance in 2013 after it was announced that former Conservative UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had been in office throughout the Miners Strike, had died. Backstage discussions ensued regarding the song, Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher, which includes the line, 'We all celebrate today, 'cause it's one day closer to your death', and whether its inclusion would be in bad taste. Daldry and Hall put it to an audience vote.

“Only three people voted against us doing it,” says Hall. “It was democracy in action, and for me was about everything that Thatcher was against. What she represented was such a perditious influence, and isn't something to be celebrated. To say that in a piece of entertainment, it's important for us to have that. I think the play has things in it that most musicals don't.”

As with the film, Billy Elliot the Musical has been hailed to the rafters wherever it has played, picking up five Olivier awards for its original London run and a staggering ten Tonys on Broadway, as well as winning awards in Australia, the Netherlands and Korea.

“What's amazing is how the story travels,” Daldry observes. “It's about a very particular time and a very particular place, but I think what audiences connect with wherever its done is that it's a story about a community that's under threat. The show is about community more than the film ever was, and in a post-industrial context people respond to that. People are fighting for their dignity and survival, and in the middle of that, this little chap is trying to express himself.”

For Hall, whose National Theatre of Scotland adaptation of Alan Warner's novel, The Sopranos, Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, is currently running on London's South Bank, Billy's discovery of his artistic voice is a reflection of his own experience.

“The play is about ordinary people trying to overcome things,” he says, “and I think I was writing about my own journey, if you like. I'm from this working class background where I was thinking I wanted to do this thing, which was write, and that's been transformative fore me. and for me.

“The play has also allowed us to look at gender and sexuality. Dance is sometimes seen as effeminate, and Billy has a gay friend, but because of the play, for the first time ever, the Royal Ballet had more boys applying than girls, so it's had an effect on art and how it's accessed. The play is saying that there are other ways of exploring masculinity, and that art can be for the working classes, and not just for the middle classes.”

Billy Elliot The Musical, Edinburgh Playhouse, September 20-October 22.

The Herald, September 20th 2016