“I'm trying to recharge,” says Neilson, whose most recent play seen in Scotland was a new version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which he created for the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. “I've been working solidly for the last few years, and I think it's good to take a step back for a bit.”
After almost thirty years working up a body of work which has moved from the dark noir of his professional debut, Welfare My Lovely, in 1990, and the provocations of other early plays such as Penetrator, through to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland itself, you can see his point.
As Neilson takes time out, perhaps the Tron Theatre in Glasgow's forthcoming revival of his 2002 farce, The Lying Kind, which opens next week, will serve as a reminder to audiences of his broad palette as a writer. Dating from 2002, The Lying Kind is set on Christmas Eve, when two coppers on the beat must break some terrible news to an old couple in their neighbourhood. As they argue the rights and wrongs of their task, they are thwarted by a group of anti paedophile vigilantes and other unintended distractions.
“It's had a strange history,” Neilson says of the play, “because I originally did it at the Royal Court in London, where it was clouded by the context of that, and because it was a farce, the first thing that the old guard of critics was Joe Orton. He was never in mind. It was originally a Christmas show, and was the first Christmas show that the Royal Court had done for years, and the original inspiration had been Laurel and Hardy.”
With the play perhaps confounding expectations of what a Neilson work might be, The Lying Kind didn't do that well in its initial London run. Since then, however, it has received numerous productions, including runs in Sweden, France and Greece, where it ran for two years.
“It's my most financially successful play because of that,” says Neilson. “Other countries don't have the same context as London theatre has, and a lot of companies abroad have put their most famous comedy duos in it. I would turn up not knowing who these people were, but there would be queues to get in. It would be like us putting Fry and Laurie in it.”
The Lying Kind dates from 2002, the same year Neilson's play Stitching caused controversy with its frank dissection of the most intimate aspects of a couple's relationship. As with much of his work, the latter play was developed in the rehearsal room rather than at Neilson's desk. In a largely literary-based British theatre environment, such a wilfully individual methodology has often seen companies flying by the seat of their pants. It has also made for thrilling theatrical experiences such as the award winning The Wonderful World of Dissocia. The Lying Kind, on the other hand, seems to break Neilson's own rules.
“I wanted to do something with farce to try and test that muscle,” says Neilson of the roots of the play. “I can't remember what else I was doing at the time, but there seemed to be a lack of stuff that was around to make people laugh. I thought that because it was set at Christmas that would help ramp up the awfulness of what happens in it. There's a little bit of a point in there, that trying to be kind can often make things worse, but that's it.
“The odd thing is that it wasn't really created in rehearsals in the way that I normally do things. It went through that whole drafting process, which is fine for stuff like that. With farce, you really need to work it.”
The Tron's new production was instigated by the theatre's artistic director, Andy Arnold.
“I've known Andy for a very long time,” says Neilson. “When I was a student at Telford College in Edinburgh, I worked with him on a thing at Theatre Workshop, so there's a nice circularity to him doing this. He knows the mechanics of farce, and, like a lot of my work, the play hasn't been done in Scotland. I don't know why that is, but I think there's a certain sensibility to the play which is quite Scottish, and maybe that's what Andy's picked up on, so I think Scottish audiences will get something out of it that maybe London audiences didn't.”
Fifteen years after the play's premiere, in keeping with his current step back from making new work, Neilson is keeping his distance. Not for him a series of re-writes and updates unless absolutely necessary.
“Andy's changed a couple of references,” he says, “and there was a little cut I made to it, but that's it. There was a gag I really liked, but it was a Rolf Harris gag that came pre all that Saville stuff, and I struggled to find a replacement for it. Andy wanted me to come into rehearsals, but I said I didn't necessarily want to do that. If you have to look too closely at things you've done, you notice the mistakes, but by changing things you also lose some of the energy, so I'm either all in or all out. But it's one of those shows where the people doing it can put in a lot of their own stuff. That's what the comedians in the production in Sweden did when I saw it there. People can be fairly loose with it, because there's a strong enough structure in place for people to mess about with it.”
Being able to watch one of his old plays in this way seems to sit well with Neilson's current impasse.
“Having hit fifty earlier this year, it really is one of those times where you take stock about where you want to go now,” he says. “I feel I probably need to regenerate myself a bit, and think about which angle to come at things from next. I did a play at the Royal Court last year, and I feel, with that, I took my process to the most extreme I could. I've been ploughing that furrow for a while now, so where next?”
One answer might come from the current state of the world on Neilson's door-step.
“It's been such an interesting time politically,” he says, “and I'm feeling a draw to addressing some of that. I've always been wary of that sort of thing, and I don't really like issue based plays, but there's definitely something in the air. Not Brexit, because that's just dull, but all the Trump stuff might be interesting to do something with, so let's see.”
As for The Lying Kind, “It's just meant to be fun. I think people could probably do with a laugh right now. It's nothing loftier than that.”
The Lying Kind, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, July 6-22.
The Herald, June 27th 2017