Eilidh Loan was just eighteen when she left small town Erskine to take up a place at Guildford School of Acting. There she was, a teenage mod in her Fred Perry and Doc Martens, rocking up out of Renfrewshire to take on the world.
By the end of her time in Guildford, Loan had won the Alan Bates award for most promising actor in their final year at drama school ahead of 300 other entrants. Among other things, this enabled her to develop her own play, Moorcroft, a version of which has already been seen at the John Thaw Studio Theatre. Fellow actor Elliot Barnes-Worrall, who presented her with the award, described Loan as “a warrior woman.”
Now here she is, having already played Lady Macbeth on radio and Lady Jane Grey on TV in BBC 4’s England’s Forgotten Queen, and the now barely twenty-something Loan is making her professional stage debut as another driven eighteen-year-old. In Rona Munro’s new version of Frankenstein, which opens at Perth Theatre next week prior to a UK-wide tour, Loan plays Mary Shelley, the headstrong author of the iconic gothic horror novel which has been reimagined numerous times since its first anonymous publication in 1818. That was when Shelley was twenty. Putting the book’s author onstage is crucial in Munro’s rendering for this co-production between Perth Theatre and several other partners.
“We see Mary go through the emotional rollercoaster of writing a novel,” says Loan on a break from rehearsals. “She’s an eighteen-year-old writing a story with huge political significance, and which has serious consequences on her as a woman. Rona’s script doesn’t shy away from that. Mary’s come from this background of instability in her family, and we see her go through this incredible journey to create this amazing character. She has to go through despair and loss, and she’s incredibly vulnerable while she’s doing it.”
Loan is referring to the woman originally named Mary Godwin’s precocious youth following the death of her mother, feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, eleven days after she was born. Brought up by her novelist father William Godwin, the sixteen-year-old Godwin became romantically entwined with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, eventually marrying him before writing the book that came to define her. For all the emotional turmoil that surrounded her, Loan points up Mary’s other sides.
“She’s fun and she’s exciting,” Loan gushes. “She’s cheeky. We see her in a really modern light, and for me it’s really important for young women today to be able to see that
Growing up in Erskine listening to soul music with her dad, Loan was Northern Soul dancing from an early age, She started performing in after school clubs, youth theatre and local amateur companies, and used to ride a Vespa scooter.
“I could talk for Scotland,” she says, “and I used to sing and dance all the time, but none of my family are theatrical people. I’m from a working class background, and my parents didn’t know anything about theatre, but they’ve been so incredibly supportive. They wanted to give me as their daughter every opportunity they could, and to do something I really wanted to do and that would make me happy. I was really lucky to go to Guildford School of Acting, and both me and my parents worked really hard.
“The special moment for me will be stepping out onstage at the Theatre Royal when my parents and all my family are there. They’re so proud of me, and gave me so much love and support, and for me to give that back is a really special thing. It’s really important that schools come along as well, especially from backgrounds where a career in the arts might not be recognised as a career option, but which, as I’ve discovered, theatre is a medium like no other. It opens up a part of you like nothing else does.”
Like Mary Shelley, Loan started writing young.
“I always really enjoyed writing,” she says, “but I’m dyslexic so was always put off it, but when I went to drama school they really encouraged you to make your own work, so I put pen to paper.”
Moorcroft is about an amateur football team set up by her dad and others when they were younger. While the players found camaraderie, they also had to face up to outside forces beyond their control.
“It’s a story of toxic masculinity that explores male mental health, drink, drugs and homophobia,” says Loan. “To watch people from my community to be able to go to the theatre and see their stories is really important.”
Story-telling is similarly important for Loan in Mary Shelley.
“It’s Frankenstein told in a way that, even though you think you know the story, it’s like something you’ve never seen before,” she says. “It feels new and exciting, and you’ll hopefully come away having learnt something that you didn’t know before.”
Such hunger for her work is what drives Loan, both in Frankenstein and beyond.
“I want to play iconic women,” she says. “After playing Mary Shelley, I want to continue to play strong women with vulnerability, characters people can relate to and see our own truth in. I want to make theatre a career for life, and to encourage stories that haven’t been told before. I want to get as many people from my background into the theatre as possible, and to go outside their comfort zone. One day I hope to leave some kind of legacy behind for young women to relate to. That’s what Mary Shelley did when she wrote Frankenstein, and that’s something to aspire to.”
Frankenstein, Perth Theatre, September 5-21; King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, October 21-26; Theatre Royal, Glasgow, November 25-30; His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, February 4-8; Eden Court, Inverness, February 18-22.
The Herald, August 31st 2019