Stephen Greenhorn has a lot to celebrate just now. The playwright and TV and film writer may be chained to his desk working on a new high-profile project for the small screen, but two significant anniversaries this month should hopefully see him cut himself enough slack to celebrate.
First up, Dundee Rep’s new production of Passing Places sees Greenhorn’s ‘road movie for the stage’ come of age in director Andrew Panton’s twenty-first anniversary revisitation. In the play, small town Motherwell lads Brian and Alex go on a voyage of discovery in a stolen Lada, having their horizons opened forever en route.
Meanwhile, a few nights later in Leeds, West Yorkshire Playhouse’s revival of Sunshine on Leith, Greenhorn’s Proclaimers-soundtracked musical opens a major UK tour eleven years to the day since it originally premiered in Dundee, where West Yorkshire Playhouse artistic director James Brining was then in charge. Since then, of course, Sunshine on Leith has gone on to be seen in a successful film version which has allowed Greenhorn’s story about a couple of squaddies returning home after a tour of duty in Afghanistan to have a much more widespread impact. This in turn has made the forthcoming tour a less local product than it might have once been considered.
The intervening years since both plays have seen Greenhorn move away from the stage to work in TV and film more or less full time. While early stage plays had already been produced at the likes of the Byre Theatre, St Andrews and by 7:84 Scotland, he was already penning episodes of TV cop show The Bill prior to Passing Places. Other TV work included his newspaper office based drama, Glasgow Kiss, Derailed, a drama documentary that reconstructed the 1999 Ladbroke Grove train crash, episodes of Dr Who. Greenhorn also created TV soap, River City, much of the original Leith-set premise of which arguably fed into Sunshine on Leith. With such a back catalogue under his belt, returning to two of his most successful stage plays has been a strange experience for Greenhorn.
“It’s been odd,” he says. “I probably last saw Passing Places about five or six years ago, and going up to Dundee for the read-through of this production, it was like greeting old friends who I’ve not seen for a while, but who are quite removed from me. I felt like I knew the writer who wrote the play, but it isn’t me. I was a different person then, and my writing has a different sensibility. That’s why I’d feel uncomfortable about going in and tweaking it or re-writing it in any way. I couldn’t write like that now, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
“Working in telly now, it’s all about rewrites and meetings and writing draft after draft after draft, but even though I was already doing bits of telly, Passing Places just happened. There was a freedom there, and an energy in the writing that wasn’t constrained by all these shifts in tone, and it felt like I could do anything with it, whether that was bad jokes or monologues. I think it was all to do with me being excited by the possibilities of theatre, and this ridiculous idea of doing a road movie for the stage.”
The roots of Passing Places stems from Greenhorn’s own youth growing up in Fauldhouse, where he and his mates took advantage of that great enabler of the arts – the dole – to club together to go hill-walking as a way of escaping their seemingly dead-end small-town lives.
“We were all hanging out trying to work out what we wanted to do,” says Greenhorn, “and we’d pool our dole money and drive north, where we’d find out that Scotland wasn’t what we thought it was at all, like when we went to Thurso and discovered it was a surfing mecca. All this came together with Passing Places with me wanting to explore what Scotland meant at the time, and that this whole heritage idea isn’t there. It’s more complicated than that.”
Greenhorn had already given himself free rein several years before, when the Traverse Theatre was about to be built in what would be its new Cambridge Street home.
“One of the techies was explaining all the different configurations they could have in terms of staging,” he remembers, “and he basically said anything I can write, they could stage it. That’s why I stopped worrying about Passing Places having an exploding car and a surfing climax.”
The appearance of Passing Places in 1997 seemed to coincide with a new wave of playwrights coming out of the Traverse, with debut works by the likes of David Greig and David Harrower having preceded it a couple of years before. In truth, Greenhorn had been writing for several years before both writers.
“They were really exciting times,” says Greenhorn, “seeing what would become a new generation of writers starting to emerge. I was looking up to Chris Hannan and Peter Arnott, who were ahead of me, and suddenly here were all these writers coming up behind me, with me somewhere in the middle.”
The enduring power of Passing Places has seen numerous productions over the years, with Brian and Alex’s rites of passage in the play clearly striking a chord with real life small town boys.
“Whenever I bump into people who know the play, they keep saying I should do a sequel,” says Greenhorn. “These are people who have an attachment to Passing Places, and a sense of ownership, but I don’t want to put a couple of bald, middle-aged fat bloke onstage and ruin their idea of who Brian and Alex are and what they’re about. “
Greenhorn’s most recent stage work was one half of Tracks of the Winter Bear, a double bill of plays shared with a new piece penned by Rona Munro, and seen at the Traverse. There should be at least one other new play due as soon as he can finish it.
“It was good to do Tracks of the Winter Bear,” Greenhorn says, “just to remind myself that I was a playwright who accidentally ended up writing for film and telly.”
Since Greenhorn started out as an inbetweener writer, several generations of playwrights have come up, with boundaries increasingly blurring between what constitutes new writing and a much broader idea of theatre making. As chair of the Scottish Society of Playwrights, the body set up to look after writer’s interests, Greenhorn sees this first hand.
“There are hundreds of people coming through,” he says. “There are plenty of writers, but now here’s a whole load of people who perform their work as well, so the bar is being raised higher and higher.”
Twenty-one years after Passing Places and a decade since Sunshine on Leith, Greenhorn may now be something of an elder statesperson, but the allure of getting his hands dirty in the theatre hasn’t gone away.
“Theatre is always a nice world to step back into,” he says, “just to remind yourself of what it’s like going into a dark room and putting on a show, and what a visceral experience that can be. It gets scarier every time you do it, but it has to be done.”
Passing Places, Dundee Rep, April 17-May 5, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, May 8-12; Sunshine on Leith, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, April 20-May 19, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, May 21-26, His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, May 28-June 2, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, June 4-9, Dundee Rep, June 12-16; King’s Theatre, Glasgow, June 18-23.
The Herald, April 17th 2018