Family life is everything to Martin McCormick. The actor turned writer is having an increasingly high profile as a playwright, with his biggest play to date, Ma, Pa and the Little Mouths, opening this week at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow in a production in association with the National Theatre of Scotland as part of the Tron’s Mayfesto season. While his own domestic life with his wife, actress Kirsty Stuart, who is currently appearing in Frances Poet’s play, Gut, at the Traverse in Edinburgh, and their two children, sounds a hectic whirl of of juggling schedules, it is nothing like the world he has created for his play.
“I always knew it was going to be about two older people who’d experienced some kind of trauma and grief,” says McCormick, “but whatever it is that they’ve been through, it’s all in the background. They’re suppressing it, and there’s all this claustrophobia caused by all these suppressed emotions they’re going through while being stuck in this room. I guess all that came out of me bring a parent.”
McCormick points to fellow playwright Simon Stephens, who once talked about how his play, Bluebird, about a taxi driver listening to his fares’ stories, was a direct response to becoming a father.
“He said that as a playwright, becoming a parent totally informed his work,” says McCormick. “I feel that as well, and it’s for the better, I think. It improves your outlook on your experiences and everything going on around you. I think with this play I started off thinking about what are my greatest fears as a parent. My initial idea was that the world had become such a state that you had to give your children away. That’s not in the play anymore, but I was thinking about the idea that you might not have been able to experience parenthood.
“My neuroses at being a parent are combined with my neuroses as a human being, because everything’s so messed up just now, and there are people who are so scared about what’s going on in the world that they’ve hermetically sealed themselves away. That happens. People literally lock themselves away, so there’s a plausibility about that in the play.”
If the scenario McCormick sounds bleak, Ma, Pa and the Little Mouths should be leavened by the play’s over-riding sense of absurdity, encouraged both by director Andy Arnold and the presence of Gerry Mulgrew and Karen Dunbar as the central couple.
McCormick is no stranger, either to the Tron or Arnold’s work there. As an actor he has appeared in Arnold’s Tron productions of Anthony Neilson’s play, The Lying Kind, Chekhov’s Three Sisters, and The Lonesome West, by Martin McDonagh. Arnold attended an early rehearsed reading of McCormick’s debut play, Squash, which went on to be seen as part of Oran Mor’s A Play, a Pie and a Pint programme. Even then Arnold recognised McCormick’s still largely untapped propensity for absurdism.
“Andy said Squash was very much to his taste,” McCormick remembers. “The conversation I had with him from day one about this play was that it was always going to be an absurdist piece,” says McCormick. “I think my work lends myself to that, and I think that’s how Andy wanted to do something with me anyway, but during my formative years as an actor I was never inspire by Beckett at all, but now they’ve got me on a Beckett embargo and an Ionesco embargo in case it influences what I do. As a playwright I’m always saying there’s no logic to this, but then Andy says there doesn’t have to be.”
McCormick never set out to be an actor or a writer.
“I got into acting for all the wrong reasons,” he says. “I wholeheartedly admit I got into it to be famous and meet women, then, very gradually, I realised it was a craft and an artform. I meet all these people who’ve done theatre and dance from a very early age, or their parents were involved before them, so that’s how they started, but I was twenty-one before I went onstage. Saw loads of stuff at the Citizens and the Arches, but before that I only knew the Arches as a club or for Alien Wars.”
Prior to that, “I didn’t do much at school,” McCormick admits. “I was very good at bunking off and playing Championship Manager, but that was it. We didn’t do drama or go to plays, but we did have these concerts, and because I was gobby and gallus, and came from a family who always had a song at parties, I ended up taking part. I remember singing My Girl, crummy pop songs and Tamla Motown stuff, because obviously that’s the place a white boy from Glasgow should go.”
It was another performance, however, which perhaps shaped McCormick’s sense of the painfully ridiculous.
“I remember singing Goodnight Girl by Wet Wet Wet, and my voice broke in the middle of it. The entire school was there, and I just remember going ‘oh, God’ into the microphone. Putting something excruciating like that onstage is exactly the sort of thing I like. People want to laugh at it, but they know they shouldn’t.”
McCormick’s move into writing came during a lull in his acting career.
“You hear stories about actors sitting in the pub saying they’re going to write a play,” he says, “and I was becoming that.”
A chance meeting with playwright Douglas Maxwell, who McCormick worked with on a revival of his debut play, Decky Does A Bronco, sealed his fate.
“I said, listen, Douglas, I’ve written a play, is there any chance you could read it. So I sent him Squash, and he said it was like the Goonies meets Pinter.”
Squash went on to receive the Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland best new play award. Other plays followed, including Flo, written for his wife, Stuart, The Day the Pope Emptied Croy, and Potterrow. A new piece, South Bend, will see McCormick perform in a semi-autobiographical fantasia presented by Grid Iron theatre company during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe before touring the country. He’s been part of the writing team on TV soap, River City, and is keen to write a radio play. Other commissions are pending, while as an actor, he has just finished appearing in Perth Theatre’s production of Richard III.
“There was nothing in my family to suggest I should be doing any of this,” says McCormick. “I was going to be working in the building trade, but I knew I never wanted to do that, but I have this schizophrenic thing going on about where I fit in.”
As ever, it is McCormick’s family that grounds him.
“I think first and foremost I’m a father,” he says. “Everything I do is with the kids in mind, and my wife and I are constantly juggling child-care, which isn’t always easy. This year I’ve got four projects to work on as a writer, so it’s been really busy, but I’m pragmatic enough to know that next year there might be nothing. I might write the best play in the world but can’t get it on anywhere. In the meantime, I just want to get better. I’m not going to say the sky’s the limit, but I’d like to think there’s a place out there for my voice.”
Ma, Pa and the Little Mouths, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, May 3-12; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, May 16-19.
The Herald, May 3rd 2018