Neil Cooper

Frances Poet knew very little about asbestos poisoning until the mother of one of her daughter’s friends told her how her parents had died within six months of each other because of it. Her dad had been a ship’s draftsman, she told Poet, and had been exposed to asbestos during a brief three-day stint on board. As if it wasn’t bad enough that such fleeting contact with asbestos had such fatal consequences, the fact that the cause of her mother’s death came through her washing her husband’s overalls was the cruellest of fates.

This was the starting point for Fibres, Poet’s new play that forms the final contribution to the Citizens Theatre’s Citizens Women season in a co-production with Stellar Quines Theatre Company. By the sound of it, writing the play has also become something of a labour of love for Poet.

“It was so upsetting when I heard that,” she says. “I thought asbestos was a thing of the past, and I’d never heard of this thing where someone could be exposed to it just through washing someone’s overalls. After that, I started reading about it, and I spoke to a friend who’s a doctor, and she said that there would be deaths related to asbestos until 2020. That figure has now been raised to 2040, so this isn’t something in the past. This is now. More people die from asbestos related diseases than from traffic accidents, and it’s the NHS who are paying for that. The companies responsible aren’t paying for it, which, if there’s no funding, means we’re all paying for it.”

As Poet discovered, the sheer ubiquity of asbestos in everyday life made it an accident waiting to happen for decades. “Asbestos was a really versatile material used in shops, and which had incredible fire retardant properties,” says Poet. “That’s why it was used. One of the things that made me very angry when I started researching the play is that it’s been known that asbestos was a dangerous substance since 1898.”

This was after Lucy Deane Streitfeild, who was one of the first female factory inspectors, raised concerns about what she called ‘the evil effects of asbestos dust…’ Deane Streitfeild and other inspectors were ignored until 1911, and only in the 1930s was the term mesothelioma brought into medical use to diagnose asbestos related cancer. Even then, asbestos continued to be used widely for decades, with Scotland’s ship-building industry a particular conduit for its poison.

“It’s everywhere,” says Poet. “It’s in our schools, our hospitals and our homes, and it affects us all.”

Given the roots of her play, one might have expected Poet to write a piece of angry agit-prop that pointed the finger at big business in its complicity with the poisoning of a largely blue-collar community that audiences coming to see the show as part of its tour of community venues in and around Glasgow and beyond will relate to. As it is, while Fibres doesn’t shy away from the tragic consequences, Poet has filtered the experience through the gallus mouths of Jack and Beanie, a working couple who contract the disease from Jack being exposed to it while working in the shipyard.

“Listening to me, you’d think I’d done a play that was really hard to watch,” says Poet, who has been working with Clydeside Action on Asbestos on the production, “but Fibres isn’t that play, and I have no desire to write that play. I think the more laughter we see onstage, the more we relate to the characters and feel their pain.”

With Jonathan Watson and Maureen Carr playing the couple alongside supporting roles from Ali Craig and Suzanne Magowan, any comic turns there are should be laced with a depth only such experienced actors can apply to their performances. Such a clearly heartfelt piece should also tap into some of the most important issues of our times.

“I’ve joked with Jemima about this,” says Poet, “but I call it my health and safety play. Only through writing it did I realise the importance of people being safe at work. So if there’s anything broader going on in the play beyond the controversy regarding asbestos poisoning in Scotland, it would be that. When people work, even for paltry salaries, the very least a company can do is make sure the people have their health protected.”

Fibres, Barrowfield Community Centre, Glasgow, October 18; Cove Burgh Hall, Cove, October 19; Paisley Arts Centre, October 22; Pearce Institute, Govan, Glasgow, October 24; Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock, October 25; St Francis Community Centre, Glasgow, October 26; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, October 29-30; Barlanark Community Centre, Glasgow, October 31; Dunoon Burgh Hall, Dunoon, November 1; Whiteinch Centre, November 2.