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Raindog

When Raindog first burst onto Scotland’s theatre scene in 1991 with a
stage version of Ken Kesey’s counter-cultural classic, One Flew Over
The Cuckoo’s Nest, the cocky swagger of the young actors who founded
the company was at odds with its scrappy, shoestring existence and a
raw production style that predated the so-called in-yer-face generation
of theatre-makers a few years later. Here was a generation weaned on
the iconography of the Hollywood bad boy brat pack and hungry to do
something similar in their own Glasgow accent. Treatments of Macbeth
and a revival of Manfred Karge’s play, Conquest of the South Pole,
originally produced by Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, followed. Looking
to equally iconic work closer to home, a version of John Byrne’s Slab
Boys trilogy merged all three plays into one via the use of film-style
flashbacks.

Named after a Tom Waits song, the preoccupations in Raindog’s own
devised works such as Wasted and Ecstasy were self-explanatory,
revolving around a disenfranchised underclass with the needle pressed
on self-destruct. Another work, the pub-based Love. Lies. Bleeding,
revealed a relatively lighter side, though even though a large-scale
production of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba and A.D., Edwin
Morgan’s trilogy depicting a revolutionary life of Christ, couldn’t
gain the company regular funding.

By this time, of course, one of Raindog’s founders, Robert Carlyle, was
on the verge of being a Hollywood star himself following a stint on TV
in rural cop show Hamish Macbeth and playing the psychopathic Begbie in
the film of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. With co-founders Caroline
Paterson and Stuart Davids at the helm, Raindog itself moved into TV,
producing two series of the Glasgow clubland-based Tinsel Town. While
other company alumni including Shirley Henderson, Kevin McKidd, Kate
Dickie and Dawn Steele went similarly big-time, Raindog went on to
produce the 2009 award-winning film, Wasted.

It’s somehow fitting, then, that the first theatre show by Raindog for
seven years should have such strong ties with television. The Ushers,
which runs for five nights in the Tron Theatre’s bijou Changing House
space, is not only written by Coronation Street script-writer Simon
Crowther, who is responsible for some of the long-running soap opera’s
more famous Christmas day dramas, but among its cast of four is actress
Vicky Binns. As fans of the show will know, up until she was crushed by
a tram as part of Corrie’s fiftieth anniversary festive extravaganza,
Binns played Molly Compton, who in one of the biggest storylines of
late, embarked on an adulterous affair with long-suffering mechanic
Kevin Webster. Pivotal to the production is Davids, who worked with
both parties during a stint directing Coronation Street.

“I was looking around for a comedy that was clever”, Davids explains,
“but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of comedy about that has the
truthfulness of someone like John Byrne as well as being funny. I’d
always liked Simon’s writing, and when we got chatting he said he’d
written this play, which I read and totally connected with. After that
it was a case of trying to put something together almost as you would
as pilot for TV.”

Davids duly co-opted four younger Corrie cast members for a performed
reading of Crowther’s play before approaching The Tron, who effectively
green-lighted the project. Davids’ comparison with TV pilot shows is
telling. That, after all, was exactly what Crowther intended The Ushers
to be.

“It was originally intended to be the first of a trilogy of plays set
between 1996 and 2001 and featuring the same characters”, the former
National Film School graduate reveals, “but that’s all changed now. The
other two are set in the present day and are completely different. But
The Ushers is the culmination of a situation comedy that nearly got
made and a movie that nearly got made, all of which touch on the same
ideas about friendship.”

The play finds an ex-pat from Paisley now living in Sheffield receiving
an unexpected visit from an old pal who hasn’t moved on in quite the
same way as his life-long friend. As a theme it’s clearly close to
Crowther’s heart.

“I was twenty in 1996” he says, “and I’d just moved to Sheffield as
well. I’d had a very close circle of friends at school from when I was
ten, and I still do, but when I went to a wedding I realised that I’m
effectively estranged from them. I live in a different city and I’ve
done different things with my life, but there’s still this short-hand
between you, and you’re stuck with each other no matter what.”

Binns plays the only female in the cast, a girl who, back in 1996,
would probably have been dubbed a ladette.

“She’s a lad’s girl” says Binns. “She’s one of the guys, who’s always
popping in and out of this flat, and who changes the dynamics of
things, because, even though she is how she is, the lads in the play
can’t help but react differently to things when there’s a female in the
room.”

Despite her soap past, with a stint in Emmerdale prior to her five
years on Coronation Street, this won’t be Binns’ first stage
experience. The twenty-nine year old toured with John Godber’s Hull
Truck company, and has performed in pantomime. Given that she’s just
been seen by millions in one of the biggest TV drama events of 2010,
one wonders whatever possessed her to sign up for a play that will be
seen by less than a hundred people a night.

“It’s about moving on and having different experiences”, Binns says.
“Coronation Street was a fantastic experience, but it felt the right
time to leave, and if I was ever going to do it, it had to be during
its fiftieth. But you have to take risks, and I always feel that if you
do then chances are they’ll pay off.”

Crowther too is finding liberation beyond an institution that is bigger
than anyone involved.

“It’s a juggernaut” he says of the Street, “and one of the great things
about the show is that it allows writers to use their own voice in
something that is about as theatrical as you can get anyway. But if
you’ve got things to say and you want them heard, you have to stick
your head on the block and do something different.”

As their pilot idea indicates, both Davids and Crowther would like to
see The Ushers have a longer life, and, cast right, the commercial
circuit may swell beckon. Even so, if The Ushers sounds a far cry from
the urban grit of Wasted, Tinsel Town, et al, Davids insists that
Raindog most definitely aren’t softening with age. This despite future
plans for a sit-com and more stage work on comic drama. Crowther points
to Davids finding the play’s darker side beyond the laughs, though the
truth is, the company have always been in possession of commercial
populist savvy, and any move into lighter fare is merely reflecting the
times.

“Raindog have always had a comic element to their work” Davids insists,
“and we’ve always been conscious of doing work that audiences want to
see. To tell the truth, in 2011, if we’re asking people who might not
have much money to leave their houses and pay some of that money to see
us in the current economic climate, you have to entertain them. As long
as you’re telling the truth, I don’t have a problem with that.”

The Ushers, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, January 18th-22nd.
www.tron.co.uk

The Herald, January 11th 2011

ends

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