STAGING a Fringe show (unless you’re independently wealthy) is so risky – and expensive – you’ll be lucky to survive the run without losing the sparkly shirt off your back. So, why would someone such as Hilary Brooks take the chance on mounting a new production of her own musical theatre play, Kiki: Deathbed Cabaret? 
“You have to showcase your work,” she says of the piece set in the art deco world of 1920s Paris, featuring the rivalry between artist Man Ray and his model-painter muse. “The Festival offers a great chance for producers to see what could possibly play to bigger audiences.”
A multi-award-winning musical director, accompanist and musical theatre composer, Renfrewshire-born Brooks has a wealth of professional experience. But putting on a Fringe show without backing requires nerves of piano wire. When she plays back some of the more dramatic moments in her life, it becomes clear how this strength of character was formed. 
“When I graduated from RSAMD, in music, I wanted desperately to work as a musician, but unsure how to progress I came up with a plan to take a teaching job, somewhere where I’d have lots of time to practise – and then apply for one of the major London colleges to do a post-grad course. I chose the quietest place in the universe, which was the Outer Hebrides.”

The choice proved traumatic. “I really tackled the job,” she recalls. “I got a Land Rover, packed it with 15 guitars and drove up and down the causeways, teaching primary and secondary school kids how to play.” 
So far so good? “Well, yes, but I ended up based in an area of North Uist that was dominated by one clan, where the religion was, well, run by zealots. 
“It all felt a little cultish.”
At that time, the musician from Eaglesham recalls, piano and organ were deemed instruments of the Devil. A local minister was said to have been heard to pray from the pulpit for the death of the Pope. Then it was Brooks who was preached at. “On Sundays, there was a pointy-finger attack on me, when no-one in the congregation was in any doubt that I was ‘the daughter of the Devil’. 
“That came about because I’d formed a Gaelic choir – at the behest of my head teacher who wasn’t part of the ‘sect’, who hoped the school could win the Mod.”
Brooks then fell in love and built a home in North Uist with her partner. However, the “sinful” music teacher was refused the pill by the local doctor. “I snapped. I changed doctors [going to the next island].” When her relationship broke up, Brooks, by now labelled a “Jezebel”, had to leave the island. “I got back to Glasgow and began to build a music career.”
Hilary Brooks had revealed a precocious musical talent from age seven. “At 14, having added violin, piano and guitar to my music base, my parents reckoned, with the best of intentions, I should be sent to Oxenfoord Castle School near Edinburgh to further my music studies.”

The Herald: Hilary BrooksHilary Brooks (Image: PR)
But that move heralded the first of a series of loud cymbal crashes. “It was a school full of girls. I didn’t have a great start. I was homesick. Isolated. I got caught smoking and was threatened with expulsion. But my headmistress – and piano teacher – Betty Emslie-Smith was incredible. She became my brilliant mentor who believed in my talent and encouraged me to express myself. And luckily, I had a voracious appetite for sight-reading music. I loved Debussy and Bach. And I put in the hours – six a day on piano, then whatever I wanted on guitar and fiddle.”
Brooks went on to study music at Glasgow’s RSAMD (now the Conservatoire) but in her second year of college, Betty Emslie-Smith, who had continued to mentor the teenager, died, leaving Brooks “bereft”. Later, she failed her final exams. “The first I had ever failed,” she says. “At this time, my mum wasn’t well and I went home to help look after my brother,  sister and dad. And the college didn’t see me so much.” 
The teenager landed a job running a Highland cocktail bar – sleeping in a caravan – and took resits. Then came the Hebridean experience followed by a return to the central belt in 1985.  
But how to break into the music business? Brooks searched trade magazine The Stage. She took small jobs, working for an amateur opera company. “I did some supply teaching when I was desperate for money.” She played at parties; pushed her demo cassette around. “I got offered a job by David McNiven, one of the founders of Wildcat Theatre and musical director at the Lyceum Theatre.

David McNiven: Obituary

"He asked me to MD his Christmas show. I didn’t know what ‘MD’ was, and discovered it was Musical Director. I was terrified. There was no notation. There were four keyboards, including a Moog [synthesiser] and I had no idea how it all worked. But I kept going and got the hang of it. And the job led to me being picked up by an agency.”
Brooks was offered work accompanying Polish violinist, Hanna Starosta on Cunard liners. “It was tough work.” Seriously? “Mastering the repertoire took five hours a day, learning stage craft – and how to wear a sparkly dress and make-up.” 
Back home, Brooks found work with Borderline Theatre Company, working on musical comedy A Day in Hollywood, A Night in the Ukraine with Morag Fullarton. 
“I then opted to go on a tour of the Borders with the show rather than go off to Monte Carlo with the Polish diva,” she says. 
Brooks followed her instinct. She continued to improve. To learn. The Borderline connection grew into Glasvegas in 1990, then she wrote a musical for the Italia Conti school, worked with ace choreographer Dougie Squires and became a panto MD. She also worked as accompanist with the legendary Dorothy Paul and wrote original music for BBC children’s television.

The Herald: Dorothy PaulDorothy Paul (Image: PR)
The cymbals however clashed again when Brooks was offered a huge show  in London. “I was effectively hired, asked to clear my diary. We agreed money. And then the job went to a friend of the producer. I spent a bit of time under the duvet after that.”

On surfacing, Brooks enjoyed a four-month period working with Dundee Rep, on Cabaret. “Oh, and I was in a jazz band for a few years, playing weekly, while still writing shows and working with Dorothy Paul. 
“The jazz they played was horrendously hard, every Sunday night for three years at Blackfriars in Glasgow. I’d do a week of shows then do the Sunday gig as well,” she says, before adding with a sigh: “But I had to drop jazz. I loved theatre so much.”
In 2004, Brooks teamed up with writer and lyricist Clive King, the pair going on to write four musical theatre plays and develop a theatre production of the classic 1946 film, A Matter of Life and Death. “I’m always hopeful,” she says, smiling of the chances of it making it to the stage. 
Brooks is also a living exponent of the showbiz theory that no experience is ever wasted as she and Clive King turned her Hebridean experience into the musical comedy WEE FREE! The Musical, which was a huge hit at Glasgow’s Oran Mor and has now been developed into a full-length show, That Sunday Feeling. 
Asked about tour funding, Brooks remains tight-lipped, leaving you to suspect that those with the money are perhaps afraid to offend. Honestly? If the Mormon community can live with the Book of Mormon . . . “You would think,” she says, with a wry smile. 
What emerges is that Hilary Brooks’s determination is as striking as a dissonant sharp-nine jazz chord. As well as continually striving to grow her career, she works with the musicians’ union and set up a volunteer gender equality charity, Scottish Women in Music. “When you realise that less than 14% of songs are written by women you know things have to change,” she explains. 
Leading by example, she is set to write the music for a new production of the theatre classic, Tally’s Blood, working with pianist Karen McIver and Scottish Opera. And there’s the story of Kiki de Montparnasse, of course, which features the quite awesome talents of Christine Bovill and Andy Clark. 
Surely, though, in producing the Fringe show there must be part of her that’s a teeny bit feart?  “Ah, but I have back-up,” she grins. “Betty still sits on my shoulder at times when I’m scared.” 

Kiki: Deathbed Cabaret, The Gilded Balloon Patterhoose,  August 21-27