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Double Shot - Newsreaders Onstage

Here is the news. Theatre-goers are in for a treat next week, when two doyens of the small screen show off some of their lesser known talents as actresses. Former newsreaders Viv Lumsden and Liz Kristiansen may have trained at drama school, but when they appear at Oran Mor next week in Chris Dolan’s new play, Double Shot, despite now being regarded as grand dames of their oeuvre, it will be the first time either of them have appeared onstage for more than 20 years. The fact too that Lumsden and Kristiansen both play the anchors of a popular radio talk show should add an extra frisson to such an auspicious and amusing occasion. Especially as the venue’s popular A Play, A Pie And A Pint series of lunchtime plays takes place in the heart of Glasgow’s west end, a stone’s throw from the BBC’s Queen Margaret Drive studios and in full view of the neighbourhood’s media elite.

If the above reads like an old school teatime news programme’s ‘And Finally’ moments, whereby normally ashen-faced talking heads let down their guards for a moment to end the programme with some light relief, think again. Because, in a maverick move typical of A Play, A Pie And A Pint producer David McLennan, Lumsden will play the iconic host of a light and fluffy middle-brow show that’s little more than aural wallpaper designed to offer the cosy equivalent of a heavily sedated cup of tea to its listeners.

Kristiansen on the other hand, plays a once powerful sidekick now relegated to the twilight zone of niche market community radio, where she insists on promoting all things highbrow and artistic. Ushered in from the cold by her old sparring partner, it looks like this might just be her last chance in the hot-seat. Given the current state of play among the chattering classes, whereby both public service and commercial broadcasters are in the firing line for dumbing down the airwaves, is Lumsden and Kristianson’s appearance in Double Shot not a case of post modernism gone mad, whereby the pair are effectively biting the hands that once fed them?

“We hope not,” says Lumsden, who disappeared from our screens five years ago to work as a freelance journalist. “We’re not actually overtly criticising the system, but are pointing out how difficult it is to live within it. We’re not saying that all broadcast employees are bad. It’s just little sideswipes that comes through my character. What’s been interesting for me is to find out whether I could rediscover the soul of an actor, which I used to think I had, but now I’m not so sure.”

“The advantage we’ve brought to this,” Kristiansen, who worked with the RSC and Manchester’s Royal Exchange before moving into teaching and broadcasting following bringing up a family, “is that, as broadcasters, it’s a world which, up to a point, we know. We’re both going back to something we got sidetracked from, but which we set off in life intending to do. So, for me, it’s great to be given the chance to try something which I’ve always wanted to do.”

Lumsden and Kristiansen are speaking, appropriately enough, sat side by side behind two shoved together desks in the draughty church hall where they’re being put through their paces by director Roxanna Silbert. As they talk through the piece, it’s noticeable that neither woman interrupts the other, instead picking up threads after enough space has been given for points to be made with a pronounced sense of clarity. Old habits of a newsreader’s discipline, it seems, die hard.

For Silbert, formerly an associate at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre and currently head of Paines Plough in London after stints at The Citizens Theatre, the experience thus far has proved “exhilarating and terrifying. I think it’s quite frightening for them, because they’ve never had to learn lines. Although they’re not actors, they’ve always performed, but have had the back-up of auto-cues, a script in front of them and someone talking into their ear. What’s been lovely is how open they’ve been to this whole new experience.”

For Dolan too, as an experienced writer of prose and plays, Double Shot has been unique.

“It sounded like a wheeze,” he says of his response when first approached. “I had this story anyway, so when David suggested I do something for them, it all slotted in together. I didn’t want to make it too kitschy, but because of who they are, to some extent you can’t avoid it. Everyone who comes along will know who Viv and Liz are, and while I’d like the play to have a longer life, if it becomes their party piece, then that’s great.”

Whatever happens next week, both Lumsden and Kristiansen are laying their reputations as serious journalists on the line in a way that hasn’t been seen since Angela Rippon flashed her legs on Morecambe and Wise’s Christmas show. In a world where even the news has become just one more branch of showbiz, however, both parties are keen to stress that they are most definitely not playing themselves.

“It’s a conflagration of everything we’ve experienced,” says Kristiansen.

“Except murder,” adds Lumsden, before moving into our very own ‘And Finally’ moment.

Ask these grand dames of the small screen which fellow thespians they might consider looking to for spiritual guidance, and you might be surprised. Kristiansen, it turns out, was at drama school with Helen Mirren, currently on a role following her umpteen award victories for her portrayal of the UK’s reigning monarch in Stephen Frears’ film, The Queen. Kristiansen still admires Mirren greatly, and you can understand why she too might now want some overdue time in the spotlight.

A less starstruck Lumsden, on the other hand, doesn’t really have any truck with such notions. While expressing serious admiration for David Hayman and Robert Carlyle, both of whom came to prominence onstage prior to finding fame in film and television, she’s far happier pointing out the star turns she believes unable to act their way out of a paper-bag.

“Sean Connery,” she says bluntly of a man considered to be both national treasure and sacred cow. “The man is rotten. He can do James Bond, but nothing else. He’s always a Scot, even when he’s a commander of a Russian submarine. Then there’s Vanessa Redgrave, who’s held up as being brilliant, but I think is awful. John Gielgud as well I think was terrible, but they all got away with murder.”

Whether Viv Lumsden, Liz Kristiansen and the characters they’re playing can do likewise, we’ll find out next week.

Double Shot, A Play, A Pie And A Pint, Oran Mor, Glasgow, February 26-March 3

The Herald, February 2nd 2007

ends

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