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Sandy Thomson - Damned Rebel Bitches

The weather can turn in a minute on Mull. This is something Sandy Thomson is discovering as she rehearses Damned Rebel Bitches, her new play presented by her own North East of Scotland based Poorboy company in co- production with Mull Theatre, where it opens this weekend before embarking on a short tour of seven venues in Scotland.

It seems appropriate, then, that meteorological extremes were one of the driving forces behind the play. The fact that Hurricane Sandy, the second costliest storm in American history that blew through Manhattan in 2012 shares a name with Thomson may be coincidental, but, like the elemental unrest that goes before her, Thomson is a force of nature. This was the case in Monstrous Bodies, Poorboy's most recent show, which melded the lives of a teenage Mary Shelley, who would go on to write Frankenstein, and a twenty-first century schoolgirl facing up to her own demons.

This time out, Damned Rebel Bitches sees Thomson jump to the opposite end of the age scale, as eighty-something sisters Ella and Irene embark on an American adventure in search of lost youth. That particular lost youth may be a feckless kid called Cameron, who also happens to be Ella's grand-son, but you get the idea.

“When you're young,” says Thomson, “you simply don't believe you're ever going to get old. Then when you're old, you're still young, but with more years on you.”

This is the ethos Thomson has imbued throughout her creation, ever since a Playwrights Studio Scotland award to develop a show about Scottish grannies saw her interviewing “anyone over sixty-five I could find.” Thomson then decamped ton New York to talk to women who had moved there, and “to find out what it was like when we were immigrants.”

New York is also where the other half of Poorboy, Jeremiah Reynolds, lives. Reynolds drew plaudits when he appeared in another Poorboy show, Pirates and Mermaids, which Damned Rebel Bitches is a companion piece to, forming the second part of a mooted trilogy. Reynolds is dramaturg and film designer on the new show. When, three weeks after returning to Scotland, Hurricane Sandy broke, Thomson found herself able to watch the ongoing crisis online, able to access it better than Reynolds, despite the fact that he was in the thick of the crisis.

Around the same time, Thomson was visiting the theatre a lot, and “came from watching three plays in a row in which older women only ever give advice and then die so young males can have some kind of revelation at their funeral. I don't think it was deliberate. The three plays were all written by young men who were relating it directly to their own experience, but I don't know anyone whose grannies were like that. Lots of people we spoke to talked about their grannies, but nobody ever mentioned the words 'sweet', 'advice' or 'baking.'”

The result of such a melting pot of ideas is what Thomson calls a film for the stage that mixes up form and content to redress the balance with a potentially more kick-ass version of grannydom, albeit with real life flesh and blood restrictions.

“I didn't want to make the old ladies super-heroes,” says Thomson. “Irene is on pills that don't quite agree with her, so she keeps seeing werewolves. That brings an element of magical realism to things, but there are physical realities the women have to deal with as well. It's like an anti Hollywood action film. There's nothing comfortable about being on medication or having a dicky hip when you're that age.”

Damned Rebel Bitches draws its title from a quote attributed to the Duke of Cumberland during the Jacobite uprising. It was a not exactly flattering description for the women who accompanied their men folk to the battlefield, bringing their children with them to just behind the frontline so that the men would never retreat. As Ella and Irene move from the Clydeside Blitz in World War Two to Hurricane Sandy, they reclaim the Duke's words as a badge of honour.

“We see Ella go from ages nine to eighty,” says Thomson, “and we're doing age blind casting. We've got a cast aged between thirty and seventy-five, and I'm really enjoying working on something where by the end you won't care what age people onstage are anymore. For me that makes for something much cheerier, and which is more of a reflection of the women I've met. I didn't write any of the play's best lines. I pilfered them from the women I talked to.”

With all this in mind, it should perhaps come as no surprise that Damned Rebel Bitches is being presented as part of Luminate, the annual Scotland-wide festival of creative ageing that is now a fixture of Scotland's arts calendar. For Thomson and Poorboy, it is another step towards becoming something infinitely more than a theatre company, but rather, as Thomson defines it, something she calls a story machine.

“Because we're based in both Scotland and America now, we've made connections with all these film-makers, and there's definitely something about using the eye of the mind when you're using film. Jeremiah's digital, and I'm pre digital, so what I think are these crackly home movies, he thinks are incredibly evocative, and using found footage like that is a really interesting way of doing things. It's the same with the way we use music and sound. Ella starts buying records in 1949, and she really likes black female vocalists, so we've got a playlist that goes from Nina Simone right up to Beyonce.”

With such icons on our heroines' side, the play can't help but make some noise for independent women of all ages.

“The whole thing begins and ends with explosions,” says Thomson, “from the Blitz to the power cut in New York caused by Hurricane Sandy. I wanted to write something with big elemental things happening. It's easy to write something about two people sitting on the couch talking about their feelings, but I wanted something about the stairhead concert about it as well.

“We've an international cast from Scotland, England, America and Canada, who break the fourth wall, and who we've just asked to do everything. There's film, dance, direct address. That's simply acknowledging that the audience are there and that they're invited to the party, but it's also about wanting it to be something you can bring your real granny to. It's a proper Saturday afternoon at the pictures kind of experience.

“It's a memory play, but it's also a serious relationship play. When people write about people in their seventies or eighties, they can tend to write more about looking back than looking forward, but we wanted to do something different, and this is what we've ended up with. It's a disaster action adventure movie for the stage with an eighty year old woman playing the Bruce Willis part.”

Damned Rebel Bitches, Mull Theatre, Tobermory, September 22-23; Dundee Rep, September 28; Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock, September 29; Traverse Theatre, September 30; Platform, Glasgow, October 4; Harbour Art Centre, Irvine, October 6; Paisley Arts Centre, October 7.
www.comar.co.uk

The Herald, September 19th 2017

ends

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