Last week’s unprecedented snowmaggedon may have caused Edinburgh to resemble a ghost town in what was pretty much a locked-down country, with shops and schools closing early, and public transport at a minimum. Anyone frequenting Meadowbank retail park, however, will be aware that at least one institution remained open for business. That was the local bingo hall, whose regular patrons can be found day and night taking a breather in-between games, usually shrouded in a fug of cigarette smoke.
The image of such a gaggle of frozen gamers is a pointer as well to some of the thinking behind Bingo!, a new musical comedy which sees Grid Iron and Stellar Quines theatre companies team up to present what promises to be a riot of extremes penned by Johnny McKnight and Anita Vettesse, This is clear from early rehearsals in a church hall on the fringes of Edinburgh’s New Town, where director Jemima Levick and composer Alan Penman oversee the ensuing mayhem of what happens when a group of women attempt to have a good night out.
With a pink Stetson on the floor and a table full of mugs branded with the word ‘Fierce’, the name of the last musical produced by Grid Iron, this appears to involve a comedy altercation involving an axe, possibly enabled by the bar full of bevvy that stands invitingly close by. While this all appears to be good knockabout stuff, there are clearly more serious things at play that drive the extremes of McKnight and Vettesse’s play.
“What do you do if you don’t have any money?” asks Vettesse, who started out as an actress, and who is currently a regular writer on TV soap River City alongside McKnight. “That’s a very real thing for a lot of people, and if you reach boiling point, you either jump in the Clyde or do something extreme. I grew up in shops, and we got held up a few times, and it’s always desperate measures that make people do something like that.”
Vettesse talks as well about a recent incident on her doorstep, when her local bank as held up in broad daylight.
“Everyone was dealing with it in quite a light way,” she says, “and no-one was really letting it bother them.”
This again goes some way to explaining Vettesse and McKnight’s approach to Bingo!
“It’s about a group of women who go for a night out,” Vettesse explains, “and one of the women is desperate to get herself out of a certain situation, and what happens becomes more about community.”
This is something both writers recognise first-hand from growing up outside of any central belt metropolis.
“Johnny’s from Ayrshire, and I’m from Lanarkshire, and we’ve both got quite close networks of women in our lives. Quite a lot of them go to the bingo and there’s quite a difference between going to bingo in the city and going in a village. I’ve been brought up with bingo my whole life, but it was more a church hall bingo than the big Mecca halls. It’s more about a social thing than anything. The banter was always hilarious, and old wifies would go just let people know they were still alive as much as anything. Then there’s the genuine life-changing side of things, where people might win a holiday or a sofa, and how you weren’t allowed to say good luck to anyone on the stairs, which I suppose is a bit like actors having their little rituals and superstitions. I can totally see why people get addicted to bingo. It’s the same as doing the lottery. It’s about hope, and how it might change your life.”
The roots of the show stem from when director and artistic director of Stellar Quines Jemima Levick was co-running Dundee Rep and went to the bingo. With Levick and head of Grid Iron Judith Doherty bringing Vettesse and McKnight together, this in turn inspired a company outing to the bingo in order to experience bingo for themselves.
“From what I hear, everyone got really into it,” says Vettesse. “they had a ball. I think sometimes a lot of a younger generation go to the bingo as a kitsch thing, but they learn very quickly that’s not acceptable, and if they don’t show enough respect they get turfed out.
If such slumming recalls the sort of incidents immortalised in Pulp’s Brit-pop era anthem, Common People, it’s significant as well that many big city bingo halls were converted dance halls, another kind of communal space which brought people together.
“You hear all the old wifies talking about how they used to be dance halls, what it was like and who they met there back in the day. It becomes a nostalgic thing, and an important thing as well, for people to remember what things used to be like. It’s a place where friends become family, and you see a different side of them."
Working with composer Alan Penman has been a new experience for Vettesse.
“We originally planned to use music by Annie Lennox,” she says, “and when we wrote the first draft that’s what was in our heads, and I think that made us write better. In the end we dropped that idea, and Johnny and I wrote the lyrics, with Alan Penman doing the music. Writing songs was a new thing for me, and I hadn’t realised that you could still tell a story through song.”
Writing the play as a musical also gave Vettesse and McKnight license to push things as far as they could go.
“We just asked ourselves what was the worst thing that could happen,” says Vettesse, “and Johnny kept on raising the stakes. You can tend to pigeon-hole the type of people who go to bingo, and when friendships and relationships are important, that raises the stakes even higher. Especially when money comes into it. That can make or break things. That’s when people show their true colours, and when people don’t have any money to start with, that’s when things can get really fascinating.
All of which sounds like a win-win situation for all involved.
“It’s hopefully a funny play,” says Vettesse, “but with some very serious things going on as well.
Beyond Bingo!, Vettesse is writing River City “full-on” and is also writing a new show for children’s theatre company, Catherine Wheels.
“It’s another musical, funnily enough,” she says, “so that’s a lovely kind of segue, and one informs the other.”
Vettesse and McKnight have high hopes as well of working together again.
“We were really worried at the start, because we’re really good friends, and we didn’t want to jeopardise that, and we made an agreement right at the start of Bingo! That we wouldn’t let that happen.”
Whether by luck or design, such a spirit of real-life friendship has left its mark on the play.
“On one level,” says Vettesse, “the big thing in the play is this finding a way out of a desperate situation, but really it’s about friendship ad relationships, and how life moves on.”
Bingo!, Assembly Hall, Edinburgh, February 6-17, then tours.
The Herald, March 6th 2018