Brian Beacom

SHOCK news; Val McDermid has come up with a tale that doesn’t involve dismembered body parts, sexual abuse and acts of violence so heinous readers in bed are compelled to pull duvets over heads.

McDermid’s new story is in fact a play, Margaret Saves Scotland, and will be performed at Glasgow’s Oran Mor theatre where duvets are indeed thin on the ground. It’s a huge shift in writing platform for the crime writer who can claim to have had over 10m books published in 30 languages.

So what has prompted the Fife-born writer to turn her imagination to a fairly small stage in a basement theatre in Glasgow’s West End? Why is McDermid suddenly challenged by the need to compete with the pie and pint that comes with the entrance ticket?

The former journalist explains her story idea has been fermenting for some time. “The jumping off point for the play was the death of my friend Margaret Myles a couple of years ago,” she explains. “Margaret (who grew up in the north of England) had told me when she was a little girl she fell in love with Scotland. And this little girl determined that if Scotland were to become a great nation again all it needed was a great leader.

“So when she was nine she ran away from her home in Yorkshire to go and save Scotland.”

Margaret didn’t make it, perhaps not surprisingly. McDermid smiles in recall; “She said later her great mistake was in taking Brenda with her. It transpired that her pal Brenda was a bit of a wimp and when she lost her shoe in the river that was it and they headed for home.”

McDermid loved the anecdote, and knew she had to develop it. “The play is a tribute to Margaret’s memory, but it’s also an exercise in ‘what if?’ possibility. What if Margaret had made it to Scotland?’

The play feeds into the confusion Scotland suffers from at the moment; where are we going? What will happen to us post Brexit? Who will save us from ourselves?

“I hope it does feed into the national conversation, either overtly or subconsciously,” says the writer. “And like everyone in Scotland we’re wondering where we’re going and what’s going to happen. But this is not a political piece.”

Yes, but if the lead character dreams of saving Scotland, then it’s implicit this is a country that needs saving? “Well, that’s not an uncontested argument,” she says smiling. “But as a writer I never set off to make a political point, although as a human being your concerns feed into your work. It’s certainly not a tub-thumping exercise.”

The last play the writer had commissioned was by a touring company in Humberside and was called Beyond The Black Hole, which sounds rather more Val-like.

“It was actually a children’s sci-fi pantomime. But my first performed play was about tortured human relationships.”

Looking back, she considers them both hits. “I was paid to write those plays, so as far as I’m concerned they were successes, and I tried to write plays after that. But the problem was I didn’t really know what I’d done right and didn’t know how to replicate that. I kept on trying to write more plays for so long the agent I’d had sacked me and said I was completely rubbish.”

She breaks into a laugh. “I decided that writing for the theatre was possibly not where I was going to make my mark and that’s when I turned to crime.”

Is there anxiety comes with having her first play produced at Oran Mor? “I’m not anxious about the performers,” she says of Tori Burgess, Simon Donaldson and Clare Waugh.

“I’ve got a great director in Marilyn Imrie so I’m in good hands. I think I’m just a little anxious about how the play will be received by the audience. And after all, it is 35 years since I wrote for the stage so who knows what will happen?”

She adds smiling; “I’ve seen a few more since then so I’ve got a bit more of an idea of what I’m doing. I think. And I keep telling myself it’s not a competition. But then writers can tell themselves all sorts of lies.”

Over the years she eased herself back into drama via radio and has written several radio plays. “When Oran Mor approached me it seemed the ideal chance to see if I could do it.”

Val McDermid’s playwright influences range from Caryl Churchill and David Greig. “I love the theatre. I don’t get the chance to go as often as I’d like because my life is, to say the least, scattered. But there are moments in the theatre which have carved themselves into my memory. I can still remember going to Dundee Rep as a teenager to see The Changeling and when the actor walked on stage with the finger with the ring on it I was absolutely chilled and horrified. I suddenly realised, ‘God, this is what theatre can do.’

“And I can remember another electrifying night watching Helen Mirren and Bob Hoskins in the Duchess of Malfi. Helen Mirren was mesmerising. I love those nights when the chills go up your spine.”

The love of darkness seems to be a factor in her appreciation of theatre? Has she ever enjoyed a warm Neil Simon play? “I suppose I seem to be drawn to the difficult and the dark,” she says, smiling. “I can still remember when I was an under graduate I loved Bob Hoskins in Happy End, and while it featured comedy moments, it didn’t have a happy ending.” She adds, grinning, “I do seem to have a devious twisted mind. Or maybe I’m just Scottish.”

The darkness has worked well for her. However, McDermid smiles as she maintains all that is killed off in her new play is a wild dream. “There are no murders in the play. Don’t think for a moment this nice story turns on a dime and this poor child is abducted and raped. It just doesn’t happen.”

Yet, while McDermid is clearly our very own Princess of darkness, she is developing a strong comedy voice, evident on Radio Scotland and is set to appear on Have I Got News for You.

Is it scary to be in amongst such illustrious comedy company? Yes concedes this is indeed an arena where darkness exists. “I’m in a state of abject terror,” she says grinning. “ I hope I can hold my own, although it’s still terrifying.”

• Margaret Saves Scotland, Oran Mor, April 9-14.