In a Leith rehearsal room, the cast of Grid Iron Theatre Company's production of The Devil's Larder, which begins a short tour of some of Scotland's more less travelled venues next week, are pondering the contents of a label-free tin of something that's presumably edible.
“Do you know what it is?” asks Johnny Austin.
“I don't want to know,” Charlene Boyd snaps back.
“It feels quite syrupy,” Ashley Smith ponders as she shakes the tin.
“I know what it is,” says Antony Strachan.
No-one asks, with Austin and Boyd slipping into character as they proffer the tin up like gothic quiz show hosts that could have been made flesh and blood from an Edward Gorey drawing as they salivate and speculate over the tin's potentially aphrodisiac contents with thrustingly lascivious intent. So erotic is Austin and Boyd’s routine that director Ben Harrison gets them to pare things down so that only the faintest whiff of sex remains.
“Maybe if you stopped touching each other,” he says.
The Devil's Larder is a compendium of fourteen bite-size short stories taken from Jim Crace's novella of the same name and adapted for the stage by Harrison. The show was first produced by Grid Iron a decade back after being commissioned by Cork 2005 European Capital of Culture prior to an Edinburgh Festival Fringe run at Debenhams department store on Princes Street.
For this tenth anniversary revival, The Devil's Larder will open at Custom's House, the Leith-based building used as a store room for the last thirty years, but which is now in the care of the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust. Grid Iron will then tour the show to venues in Selkirk, Oban and Melvich.
“It was one of the company's favourite shows,” says Harrison about revisiting The Devil's Larder, “and it didn't have a huge run in Scotland. That was one reason for taking another look at it. The other was approaching The Touring Consortium to find out what audiences in places like Oban might want to see. The answers that came back were something about family, something about community, something that was funny and something that was moving. We thought, hmm, I think we've got something that has all of that.”
Harrison was first attracted to The Devil's Larder, which was first published in 2001, by its cover.
“It was a very striking image of a woman with a mouthful of blackberries,” he recalls, “and the juice dribbling down her mouth looks like blood.”
With Grid Iron having already explored the erotics of food with their 1998 show, Gargantua, it seemed a good companion piece. For Crace, who describes The Devil's Larder as a cumulative novel made up of sixty-four parts, it gave his book a fresh lease of life.
“As a book it's a favourite of mine,” he says, “because it enabled me to be playful. Normally my books are serious, but when it came out it did#'t initially get that much exposure. Now it's ended up onstage, it's been given a different kind of exposure, so maybe it was always meant to be onstage.
“Both writing and reading are very solitary acts, and I've often found that difficult as a writer, because I like to be sociable. Theatre, on the other hand, isn't a solitary activity. It's a social activity, with colleagues and comrades all working together. What was great about seeing Grid Iron's version of it ten years ago, and I'm sure will be again, is that they take it off the page, with real faces and real voices responding to each other and really fleshing it out, so the book's now been socialised.”
With this in mind, Crace admits that it might have made more sense for him to adapt The Devil's Larder for the stage himself. The fact that his daughter, Lauren Crace, is an actress and writer who was a regular in East Enders prior to focusing on theatre encouraged him even more. As he also admits, however, “I don't have the skills to do it. When I nominally retired from fiction writing, one of the things I wanted to do was write plays, but I sat down to try and write one again and again, and each time I did that I don't think I got beyond the first half page.”
Whatever Crace's own limitations, theatre has continued to embrace his work. As well as The Devil's Larder, also touring this month is a stage version of his historical novel, The Gift of Stones, in a production by the Richmond-based North Country Theatre. Also set to be produced is a version of his Man Booker short-listed 2013 novel, Harvest, by Birmingham Rep.
In the meantime, Harrison's new production of The Devil's Larder is, on the showing of this week's rehearsals, at least, already looking like a darker and more stylised production than Grid Iron's first take on it.
“We're older and have more life experience second time around,” is how Harrison sees it, “so hopefully we can bring more layers to it.”
Other things have changed too in the last decade that may give the show a new resonance. On a superficial level, where before Grid Iron might have been hard-pressed to find a café selling fancy coffee in their adopted neighbourhood, today there are three Michelin-starred restaurants within a stone's throw of Customs House. One story, too, Angel Dough, now can't help but remind audiences of food-obsessed TV shows such as The Great British Bake-Off.
On a more serious note, given the recent flight of Syrians from their homeland, the fact that two of the fourteen stories, A Little Town of Great Charity and The Refugee of the Seventh Floor, concern themselves with refugees is painfully pertinent.
“That wasn't in our minds the first time we did it,” says Harrison, “but now you can't help but think about Syria.”
This tallies with Crace's observation that “It's not actually about food at all. If you kept the book in the kitchen and tried to follow the recipes in it you'd end up poisoning yourself. Each section is about something else entirely.”
Whatever The Devil's Larder is about, seeing it receive a second stage life is something Crace is clearly thrilled about.
“When you write a book,” he says, “that's pleasing in itself, but when it gets another life, that's something else again. Three sections of The Devil's Larder have been filmed, and just this week I got a letter from a composer wanting to set a song I wrote for one of them a capella. All of this after life is something I count myself really lucky about. It puts a spring in my step.”
As for Grid Iron, Crace is gushing with praise for their efforts.
“They're so courageous,” he says. “There's nothing in their productions they can't do. Grid Iron should be cherished.”
The Devil's Larder, Customs House, Edinburgh as part of the Traverse Theatre programme, October 18-24; The Haining, Selkirk, October 29-31; Rockfield Centre, Oban, November 6-7; Melvich Hotel, Melvich, November 13-15.www.griditron.org.uk
The Herald, October 16th 2015