Midsummer: an interview with the playwright
2010's first must-see show - a Scottish musical two-hander about a pre-midlife crisis is the most heartwarming ticket in town.
For days, London has been ringed in by wonky snowmen and ice-bound commuters. Could local conditions for Soho Theatre's transfer of 'Midsummer', a Scottish rom-com with songs, be any less appropriate? Well, theatre doesn't get much more cockle-warming than this surprising and credible wee Fringe hit: an acoustic musical built for two which is so packed with absurd romance and ingenuity that it makes you wonder why, in the era of bedroom downloads, people bother with big chorus-line spectaculars at all.
'Midsummer' is a bit of a paradox - and not just meteorologically speaking. It started life as a joke: an idea for an anti-musical hatched by prolific Scottish playwright David Greig and cult Edinburgh indie bandman Gordon McIntyre. It's also a departure for writer/director Greig, whose dark RSC-commissioned sequel to 'Macbeth' ('Dunsinane', premiering at Hampstead next month) is more typical of what he describes as his political 'big plays for grown-ups'. But despite its rude sense of humour and rough-and-ready style, it's a hit. When I saw it at the Traverse in Edinburgh this summer, it seemed to tickle the old wives (and husbands) just as much as the kidults in the audience. And it sticks two hugely talented and relaxed performers up at the commercial musical's perfectly groomed big ensemble: the gorgeous and dominant Cora Bissett and the hapless, hilarious Matthew Pidgeon play romantic leads Helena and Bob and all the other characters they bump into on a weekend of mutual madness - who include gangsters, stoners and Bob's penis.
'Gordon and I wanted it to be a lo-fi anti-musical,' explains Greig. 'We thought, where you usually have a big chorus, we'll have two people with guitars. Where you usually have an orchestra, we'll have a lobster.' Improvisation and intimacy are key to the scuzzy urban fairy tale which they cooked up with Bissett and Pidgeon in workshops at the Traverse: 'Midsummer' begins where conventional romances end, with Bob and Helena having haphazard sex on a 500 quid bedroom set, full of zany diagrams, spangled outfits and guitars.
Playwrights generally avoid putting sex onstage as it can be so embarassing when you get it wrong. 'But,' says Greig, 'it's vital that the romance between these thirtysomething characters begins with them having a one-night stand. And the sex is just very funny. A lot of it came from Cora and Matthew, who weren't bothered about being coy. It's the most explicit sex I've ever staged. But more than any piece of work I've done I'd be comfortable inviting anyone to come and see it, because the heart behind it is so open. People laugh at the naked truth-telling as much as the sex.'
'Midsummer' was created by it writers and performers in short and intense bursts: three workshops, followed by three weeks of rehearsals. It was an apt creative process for a love story that takes a hard-nosed lawyer who may be pregnant by Mr Wrong and a small-time Dostoevsky-reading criminal on a heady two-day bender. 'We didn't have time to think: Oh no, it's too leftfield,' says Greig. 'We just had to go with it.' Consequently it feels rough and ready, and very honest - despite its zig-zags into screwball surrealism. 'There's a lot of autobiography in there,' admits Greig, 'of all of us. When we were making it I always got excited when I thought we were saying something that's true but doesn't often get said.' Performer Cora Bissett agrees, wryly. 'Beware writers!' she laughs. 'David drains your every personal anecdote with such charm, generosity and eloquence that before you know it you've enacted and improvised your way around your deepest, darkest, most shameful secrets!' It's the mix of honesty and freewheeling fiction that makes 'Midsummer' so irresistible, though. 'We've all made twats of ourselves at some point,' says Bissett. It's part of a very thirtysomething, pre-midlife crisis, where you ask yourself, “What have I done? What have I achieved?” Everyone can connect with that.' The moments when the performers speak directly to the audience are also a buzz. 'I was in bands before I started acting and I was astonished by how polite theatre was. I was used to getting bottles thrown at my head! That hasn't happened, but I do love the direct contact here.'
If the 1950s invented the teenager then the noughties were the decade of the thirtysomething: Greig and McIntyre's show arose out of a moment, says Greig, when they realised that 'a lot of people we knew who were in their mid-thirties were asking themselves, “Is this all that I am?”' Musically 'Midsummer' is a two-guitar show. But Helena's insistently ringing biological clock and Bob's thumping, hungover despair add plenty of rhythm and bass. When you're writing a thirtysomething love story, says Greig, it's important to be 'kind to the characters - who have been battered and bruised and are wary about awakening the optimism of possibility in each other.' Bob and Helena's excellent adventure is just as much a fantasy as any fling. But it's got enough verve, humour and honesty to make even the most cycnical rom-com and musical haters fall for it.
'Midsummer' is at Soho Theatre until February 6 2010.
'Midsummer' is at Soho Theatre until February 6