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Midsummer - David Greig and Gordon McIntyre Do A Lo-Fi Musical

David Greig and Gordon McIntyre could have been separated at birth. Both are men in their late 30s who could possibly be described as looking somewhere between bookish and geeky. Both too possess innately literate sensibilities which they transcend into romantically inclined narratives, Greig through stage drama, McIntyre via the songs he writes and sings with his band, ballboy. Unsurprisingly, both artists have been weaned on the sorts of skew-whiff pop sounds championed by the late John Peel. Indeed, prior to the Radio One DJ’s death, ballboy were Peel favourites, and recorded a special session at Peel’s home. Greig, meanwhile, has consistently filtered music into his plays, from the live string quartet in Timeless to the references to Paul McCartney’s Wings in San Diego.

As meetings of minds go, then, Midsummer, the play with songs which the pair have written and composed at their leisure over the last two years, was an accident waiting to happen. On paper at least, it also looks like every indie-kid’s dream come true.

“A friend of mine pointed out that a song of Gordon’s called Let’s Fall In Love and Run Away From Here has the same plot as my play, The Cosmonaut’s Last Message To The Woman He Once Loved In The Former Soviet Union,” says Greig, inadvertently highlighting a shared facility with a title. “The song is about a middle-aged man who wants to escape with a Russian pole dancer, and that drew my attention to Gordon’s story-telling style, and I was working on a project in which I got Scottish writers to write essays on what they liked about England. That gave me the excuse to get in touch with him.”

Given that one of ballboy’s earliest songs was a spoken-word lament which cut-across Saltire-waving triumphalism called I Hate Scotland, McIntyre was an obvious choice. Out of this grew a mutual desire to create something that cut through the commissioning process and the subsequent baggage of hit show expectations that come with it. Instead, Greig and McIntyre determined to go lo-fi, and, as with the network of DIY cottage-industry record labels they both knew so well, to do something not for big industry chart success, but for fun.

“What would a musical be like,” asks Greig, “if, rather than the sort of music normally used in musicals, it used the sort of music that we liked? Once we asked that, it opened up a lot of doors, because we were talking about music on guitars and a lo-fi aesthetic that’s completely different from the scale and glamour of big musicals. This is about ordinariness, about emotion being focussed inward, and about small being beautiful. Out of this we hit upon this idea very quickly that it would be a love story with two actors playing guitars.”

Out of this came the story of a man and a woman who meet in an Edinburgh New Town bar one weekend and end up sleeping together.

“You’ve had a wild weekend,” says McIntyre, “where you’ve maybe fallen in love or meet someone, and maybe stayed up on the Saturday, so the air feels different and the light feels different. There’s something about those adventures that can tie people together.”

McIntyre talks about his song-writing as a dramatist might. He creates characters, he says, and gives them a back-story the way a method actor might.

“It might not be in the song,” he says, “but it’s important for me to know about it. There’s a lot more going on surrounding the songs than what I’m singing about, because if I did it would just be a big mess.”

One night stands are something of a running theme in both parties more intimate works, from the hotel bar merry-go-round of Greig’s play with Suspect Culture, Mainstream, to McIntyre’s magnificently titled paean to male self-deprecation, Sex Is Boring. A series of workshops supported by the National Theatre of Scotland and The Traverse Theatre followed over the next couple of years. In keeping with the cottage industry sensibilities Greig and McIntyre had decided on, however, nothing was scheduled until it seemed to fit in with The Traverse Too initiative to programme slightly off-kilter work.

“It comes from a different place to my other work,” Greig admits, sounding not unlike Nick Cave on taking time out from his day job with the Bad Seeds to knock an album out in a week with his far rougher side-project, Grinderman. “A much more irresponsible place. I needed to do something pure, which was as far out of the financial system as possible.”

Such an approach is analogous to a major label artist taking time out to record on their laptop.

“If you could do a theatre show in your bedroom,” Greig observes, “this is what I’d make. It’s as close to a home studio as you can imagine.”

There’s a long-standing mutual admiration between writers and musicians, whereby both possess a cache of something the other craves. Call it cool if you will, but while writers used to spending hours alone in front of a blank screen can yearn to take a walk on the rock n’ roll wild side, those already used to such excesses are equally desperate to be taken seriously as artists. One need only look to the 1970s vogue for rock operas by quasi-classical prog outfits, though more recent times have seen recorded collaborations between the likes of Primal Scream and Irvine Welsh. Infinitely more civilised was the recent Ballads Of The Book initiative, in which contemporary song-writers were paired with novelists and poets to see what emerged.

The collaboration between Greig and McIntyre, however, doesn’t quite fit in with this thesis, simply because they’re both, on the surface at least, the most un-rock-and-roll pair you’re ever likely to meet. McIntyre even has a day-job as a teacher, and is about to take up a temporary post as a head-master. With Midsummer, however, McIntyre is learning as much as Greig.

“It’s a different way of doing things,” says McIntyre. “I was initially sceptical, because I’m not a big fan of musicals, but there’s a much more itchy-scratchy feel here. The bands I like are not trained singers, but people who pick up a guitar to express something. So hearing my songs being sung by two brilliant actors who can sing and play guitar is a real thrill.”

McIntyre was vaguely aware of Greig before they met, largely down to ballboy’s drummer, who has worked at The Traverse as a stage manager. The similarities of his work to The Cosmonaut’s Message was coincidence, although once McIntyre read Being Norwegian, another boy meets girl play by Greig, and watched Yellow Moon, a reimagining of blues ballad, Stagger Lee, the similarities became even plainer. Midsummer, though, is much looser.

“The songs in this show don’t particularly advance the plot or function in the way that songs are supposed to do in musicals,” Greig maintains. “In a way the whole play is a great big spoken-word track that keeps bursting into these choruses. They come from a place of feeling. I realised the other day as well that the whole play is a ballboy song that hasn’t been written yet. Most ballboy songs have this under-current of an emotion, usually yearning, but often desire, regret, or nostalgia, which is overlaid with a very clever or funny take on ordinary life that elevates that emotion. Then he puts in a chorus that gives it an almost anthemic feel. This show doesn’t have anything to do with Middle Eastern politics, and isn’t making any heavy intellectual analysis. It’s much more frivolous than that, but through that, I hope we’re hitting some dark spots as well.”

Midsummer, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Previews October 24-26, then runs from October 28-November 15
www.traverse.co.uk

The Herald, October 21st 2008

ends

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