They don't make bedsit romances like they used to. Once the preserve of kitchen-sink angry young men and bookish young women, both of whom cling onto their squalor and each other for comfort before falling demonstratively apart, these days such fictional scenarios are more likely to be carried out via Facebook updates or Twitter.
Cue The Islanders, a reassuringly old-fashioned romance written and performed by Amy Mason alongsideEddie Argos, frontman of arch avant-popsters Art Brut, who provides the live soundtrack for this lo-fi musical alongside award-winning folk singer and musician, Jim Moray. Mason's script tells the story of a couple of teenage lovers who run away from home and shack up in a tatty basement that gradually tears them apart. Only when they flee their grotty one-room existence for a holiday in the Isle of Wight do things start to change, and even though it doesn't last, their love affair binds the pair together forever.
The thing is, Mason's play, presented by Bristol Old Vic as part of the theatre's artists development programme, Ferment, is a true story. Mason has based The Islanders on her real life teenage relationship with none other than Argos, then plain old Kevin Macklin, and the pair will be reliving their past every night in front of an audience. To some, this might sound both indulgent and traumatic. Both Mason and Argos, however, sound positively chipper about the prospect.
“Eddie and I had this very volatile and tumultuous romance,” Mason remembers. “I was seventeen, and had a very difficult relationship with my parents, and Eddie and moved into this awful bedsit, and we had the most miserable time. Then last year I got this little commission that was to do with the Olympics, in which you had to do something about islands. I started thinking about whether I had my own island, and remembered this holiday with Eddie. I've known him since I was thirteen, and we went out from the ages of fifteen to twenty. I'm thirty-one now, and we've remained friends on and off ever since that time, so I got in touch, and everything he remembered about the holiday was completely different from what I remembered.”
For Argos, much of Mason's story was a revelation.
Amy sent me a message saying, remember that time, wasn't it awful,” Argos remembers with a schoolboyish giggle, “and I was like, no, it wasn't. I remember going to the zoo and had a great time. I'd left quite a strict household when I was eighteen, and I didn't really care about having electricity. I was happy just to get drunk all the time, but Amy was younger.”
The Islanders has been brought to Edinburgh care of Ideas Tap, the creative initiative which, along with Underbelly, is supporting four new theatre companies to bring shows to Edinburgh this year.
Mason is currently writer in residence at Spike Island in Bristol, and up until now has concentrated on writing short stories and a novel which is currently in the hands of an agent. Neither is she part of any spoken-word scene. Up until The Islanders, Mason's only vaguely public performances have been reading her work at low-key writers groups.
Argos, on the other hand, is a flamboyant, larger than life and attention-seeking performer, who has fronted Art Brut since 2003. Named after Jean Dubuffet's definition of outsider art, Art Brut have presented a knowing post-punk sound set apart by Argos' self-referential lyrics ever since their debut single, Formed A Band, in 2004. Four albums followed, the most recent being 2011's Brilliant! Tragic!
“Most of my songs are quite autobiographical,” Argos admits, “so I'm quite used to talking about myself onstage. Probably Art Brut's best known song is Emily Kane, and that was about an ex-girlfriend, but this is different, because it's not me that's the centre of attention. I'm quite large, so I'm thinking about the best way to stand onstage without intruding on what Amy's doing. Also, with Art Brut I tend to get drunk before we go on, but I can't do that here. I'm happy to take a back seat with this and listen to Amy talking about me. My memory is really bad, so it's like a new story for me.”
During their time together, Mason and Argos briefly played together in an outfit called The Art Goblin. As with their relationship, it was destined not to last. Which is why Argos' ascent to alternative pop stardom came as such a surprise to Mason.
“After we split up I went off to a kibbutz and shaved my head,” Mason remembers, “and then when I got back Eddie was in the NME, which was really annoying. When you've just split up with someone, something like that becomes a bit of a sore point, but now I think it's great. We both work in similar ways, and are both kind of quite wonky, I guess.”
To coincide with the Edinburgh run of The Islanders following dates at Battersea Arts Centre and the Latitude festival, a graphic novel of the play's story is being published. For Art Brut fans familiar with Argos' obsession with comic books, this should come as no surprise. Brilliant! Tragic! also featured a comic book to accompany its release. Bringing things full circle, The Islanders graphic novel will come with a code to enable recordings of the show's songs to be downloaded.
All of which is an elaborately creative way for Mason and Argos to draw a line under their turbulent past.
“There are things in the show that you don't usually talk about with someone you've gone out with,” Mason points out, “ and I think by doing it we've actually become much better friends, because maybe it was something we needed to work out.”
Argos too admits that “It's quite emotional, but that's alright. I was doing quite a good job of pretending it wasn't about me, but then Amy's parents came to see it, and that reminded me that it actually was about me. That was quite raw, because there were people in the audience who were in the show. On the whole, though, I think I came out of it surprisingly well. I wasn't a shit or anything, but I think Amy's been very kind.”
While raking over their shared past may be raw enough,there is also the prospect of Mason and Argos staying under the same roof for the first time in thirteen years.
“It's going to be weird in Edinburgh sharing a flat with him for a month,” Mason admits. “It could be a bit of a trauma.”
Who knows? It may even spark off some fresh material for the pair to mull over, although it's doubtful whether either party is keen to expose their emotional selves in public again.
“I'd like to write with Amy again,” Argos says somewhat cautiously, “but maybe something not so raw next time.”
The Islanders, Underbelly until August 25th, 4pm. Art Brut play Electric Circus, August 10th.
The Herald, August 2013