A Play A Pie and a Pint

Getting a stage play from an idea in the mind of the playwright to performance on stage is - like all kinds of writing - a long and frequently harrowing process. I've just had a phone conversation with the director of Burns on the Solway, which will be staged at Glasgow's Oran Mor Centre during the week beginning 20th February and is consequently about to go into rehearsal. It was a huge relief, because we instinctively seemed to be agreeing about everything - but he had his own exciting ideas about the look of the piece which filled me with enthusiasm. Also, he seems to like the play - a major prerequisite for a happy production! A lot of this is to do with the wonderful David McLennan, and his facility for pairing up people who might work well together - certainly it's one of the factors behind the success of his "A Play, A Pie and a Pint" season, sponsored by Orange.
David organises a series of short lunchtime plays, each lasting about 45 minutes. The price of the ticket includes a pie (literally - meat or veggie options are available) and a drink, alcoholic or otherwise. There are rows of seats with tables. The audience come in, eat, drink, talk, and then, once most of the dishes are cleared away, settle back to watch the play.
The first time I contributed a play, (The Price of a Fish Supper, spring 2005) I couldn't believe the size of the audience. It opened on a holiday monday, the university students were away and Glasgow's West End looked deserted. I had misgivings. But then, quite suddenly, the place filled up. And I mean filled. This is a big venue, but it's congenial and people like it. They also like the fact that they can fit it in around other things. A significant number of retired people enjoy coming out in daylight, people on flexi time come along from the BBC, and the surrounding hospitals and businesses - they even like the pies! They were a mixed, interesting, receptive audience.
This year's play - mind you - is quite different from the last one. So we'll see. In my experience, critics and reviewers often expect you to write more of the same, and sometimes get quite shirty when you don't, reviewing what something is not rather than what it is! Or maybe that's just my usual writer's paranoia surfacing ...
The play takes a fresh look at the relationship between Robert Burns and his wife Jean. I've always been more interested in Jean than in any of his other loves. Maybe because she so often gets a bad press. Miscellaneous academics down the years (mostly male) have gone on at length about Burns marrying someone whose intellectual capacity couldn't match his own. As if teasing Nancy McLehose was the last word in intelligence. One writer labels Jean "glaikit" a Scots word meaning stupid. They even manage to turn her own virtues against her. Because she uncomplainingly agreed to take on the upbringing of Anna Park's daughter, (she of the "gowden locks", the barmaid Burns bedded at the Globe Inn, Dumfries,while Jean was visiting Mauchline) one commentator pointed out that this compliance would have been a constant reproach to the poet and was possibly the reason for his unhappiness! Can't win, can you?
When you search Google for Robert Burns, you get about nineteen million hits. When you search Google for Jean Armour, you get just over one million, and that includes one or two high profile descendents. Highland Mary, on the other hand, gets a whopping three and a half million hits. Wouldn't you just know that the mistress gets more fame than the wife? Particularly when she dies before she can make any trouble!
So I've always had a soft spot for Jean, as well as a huge affection for the poet. I know he put it about a bit, but he was a man who genuinely liked the company of women. You need only read songs like "My Tocher's the Jewel" to know that here was a man unlike most other men of his time. To put such words into the mouth of a woman takes an amount of insight that few writers could match - now or then! And the real words to "Green Grow the Rashes" are not, "the sweetest hours that e'er I spent" - an old rake looking back on past love affairs - but a much more immediate, and quite different "the sweetest hours that e'er I spend are spent amang the lassies oh..." with a final, telling reference to Jesus Christ, usually omitted when the song is sung. "The wisest man the warld e'er knew, he dearly lo'ed the lassies oh."
So, Robert and Jean. That's what I wanted to write about. It's a love story - of course.
It's a short play about endings (and perhaps beginnings). It's a play about loss. And about inspiration. And about the complexities of the relationship between a husband and wife. But by the time it's on stage, I'll know more about it. That's what happens when actors and a director get their hands on your work. It's also one of the things that make theatre so exciting - and keeps this writer in particular coming back for more.

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