I wrote this piece for The Sunday Times as Hell’s Bells opened in Edinburgh:
In the middle of August, I’ll be going up to Edinburgh to see my own play, Hell’s Bells, at the Pleasance Attic, and it’s going to be quite weird. A small, dark performance space will be focused, for less than an hour, on a few thousand words I’ve written, and on three characters I’ve made up. There will be a lot of hats on stage (because the play demands them). There will also (I hope) be an audience made up of real play¬-going people, none of whom I have met.
I’ve been writing drama for nearly 20 years, but always for radio, never for the theatre. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to write for the stage. I have, in fact, yearned all my life to do so, but have weakly regarded it as somehow beyond what’s possible. Then, last year, the director/designer Simon Scullion asked if he could stage a ghost story of mine that had been on the radio, The Proceedings of that Night, and present it at Edinburgh. I did a bit of work on the script. He rehearsed with the actor Martin Miller. Thus it was that, one day last August, I found I had already started writing for the theatre, without even trying.
Hell’s Bells is a bit more ambitious, but only a bit. I am a believer in taking things by small steps. So this is a 45-minute original play, again in a small space, again directed by Simon, again with Martin in it, again at the Pleasance. The setting is the recording of an audio commentary for a DVD — a highly artificial activity, when you think about it, full of the absurd and the inconsequential. “Doesn’t Geoffrey look old? And he was only about 40, poor lamb.” “Those sheep in the distance, most of them are cardboard.” “Oh, look! That’s the little dog that bit Pacino on the face.”
The DVD in question is of an old costume drama called Mrs Milliner, which I based (affectionately) on The House of Eliott. In the play, the success of The House of Eliottis to blame for Mrs Milliner sinking without trace after one season. But something exciting has happened to Mrs Milliner now. One of the cast — the young actress who played Elsie, a cheerful 1920s cockney hat-maker — has become a global star, hence the demand for a DVD. When the time for recording arrives, however, there are only three people present: Phyllis, the vulnerable, beautiful star of Mrs Milliner (Janet Ellis); Carmen, its disaffected writer (Sonia Beck); and Simon, a young man who has just inexplicably arrived with a large delivery of hats (Martin Miller).
I have loved writing radio drama all these years. You learn ways of conveying the infor¬mation you can’t show. So, for example, if you want the listeners to know that a character is holding a door open, he has to say something like: “Do you want me to hold this door open all day?” But how wonderful not to have the problem; to be able to write the stage direction “Carmen mimes hanging herself; Phyllis falls back in her chair as if dead”. On the stage, you can have a line delivered by someone either bareheaded or wearing an outsize sombrero — and isn’t it a wonderful freedom to explore the oh-so-subtle difference of effect? As for action, I always had in my mind a highly visual climax in which one character valiantly tries to keep the audio commentary on the road, while behind the others are tussling, physically trying to kill each other:
Spotlight just on Phyllis and the two empty chairs; Phyllis bravely trying to keep it going, while behind her Carmen and Simon are fighting.
In a way, Hell’s Bells plays with the device of not seeing in a manner I’m familiar with from radio. The characters sometimes sit in a row, in headphones, watching a television drama that we can’t see. I’m used to the idea of the audience having to extend themselves — by the end of Hell’s Bells, I want them to believe they actually remember watching Mrs Milliner on the telly. The dialogue does sound familiar, after all: “Hell’s bells, Rafaella, don’t you think of anything but hats?”
While Hell’s Bells has been in rehearsals, I’ve been working on other stuff. When it opens, I’ll be covering the Olympics. But in mid-August, I will finally see it. For some, Edinburgh can be a launch pad to the stratosphere; for me, I’m thinking more of a message in a bottle. It’s on at 11.45am, so my main hope is that people will see it after having a mid-morning coffee and a big slab of cake. You might think this is peculiar, but in my experience, the warmest audiences are the ones full of jam and cream.