IT BEGAN with a small idea to do something big. Writer, director, actor and one-time musician Cora Bissett was talking to Jackie Wylie, director of the National Theatre of Scotland, about the possibility of doing a musical.

But which one? Something intrinsically Scottish, Bissett thought. “It’s not just, ‘Let’s put on Hairspray.’ What’s our musical?” she asked herself. She began reading classic Scottish novels and watching familiar Scottish films, trying to find the story that could work. She dismissed most of them.

What, she began to think, is the cult classic “that speaks to me and to a lot of other people?”

And that’s when she thought about Peter Mullan’s film Orphans, his directorial debut, released in the UK at the end of the 1990s and starring Gary Lewis and Douglas Henshall, alongside Rosemarie Stevenson and Stephen McCole.

“I’ve always been a big fan of Peter Mullan’s work,” Bissett says now. “I loved Orphans when it came out. It’s got that incredibly dark humour that I think is culturally a part of us. But it’s got enormous heart even though practically every character is ridiculously emotionally oppressed.

HeraldScotland: Cora Bissett. Photograph Colin MearnsCora Bissett. Photograph Colin Mearns

“It has got enormous soul. And even just watching it again I think it’s incredibly theatrical. You think you’re watching a great realist drama, and then it goes off and you realise you’re in a very different magical realist territory. You have roofs blowing off churches. You have a man floating down the Clyde on a pallet. It’s poetic and it lifts, and it soars, and I just thought, ‘Aw, we could really have fun with this.”

And that’s why, years after Bissett first had that small idea, we are here this morning in Rockvilla, NTS’s headquarters in Glasgow, just under a month before opening night, with a stage full of actors dancing around a Waltzer led by “movement director” Vicki Manderson and her assistant Jade Adamson, while Bissett watches on.

The world has changed between idea and its realisation. This is a show that should have appeared a year ago, but the pandemic ruined that plan. Right now, Bissett and her team are hoping it doesn’t get in the way of opening night. This morning there are two actors off with Covid.

Fortunately, there are alternative arrangements. “We do have understudies in place, which you normally wouldn’t have in Scottish theatre,” Bissett explains. “All my contemporaries have grown up in an era where you just don’t get sick. It’s Doctor Theatre. Very few of us have ever missed shows in our lives. You just go on come rain or shine.

“But obviously we’re living in very different times and so, even when people don’t feel unwell, they have to isolate.

“Everyone is understudying to some extent. And probably wetting their pants at the thought.”

Manderson and Adamson run the cast through their paces. Over the course of a couple of hours I watch as technical details are transformed into flowing movement. The magic of theatre.

Meanwhile, Robert Florence, star of Burnistoun and The Scotts, and “Rab” to everyone at Rockvilla, is sitting at the back of the rehearsal room, not needed just at the moment. Florence may have been a member of a youth theatre group in Springburn as a teenager but being the main man in an all-singing, all-dancing Glasgow musical is not what he’s used to.

“It’s a completely new experience for me,” he admits. “When you come from TV comedy you maybe have an idea in your head that theatre is really serious. But, if anything, it’s really playful.

“It’s hard work. We do warm-ups in the morning and it’s really physical. That’s been a wee bit of a shock to the system It’s a nice way to start your day; everybody exercising, playing some games to get yourself awake.

HeraldScotland: Robert Florence. Photograph Colin MearnsRobert Florence. Photograph Colin Mearns

“On telly you turn up for your call time, you get your make up on, you get your costume on, you step on set, you do it, you go home. There’s no readjustment time where you can get warmed up, make sure everyone’s in a good place and then do the work. It’s completely alien to me, but really nice.”

He already seems very at home. Why did he want to get involved? “Mainly because I absolutely love the film. When my agent told me about it, I was like, ‘Aye definitely. I’m 100 per cent interested.’

“It’s not like I’ve had any real clamouring to do theatre stuff. It’s more that I would have been gutted if this would have happened and I hadn’t been involved in some capacity because I think the film is a masterpiece, man. I love Peter Mullan’s stuff. I love the films that he makes. I think he’s a hugely underrated film maker in this country. The guy’s a genius.”

That said, Florence hasn’t watched the movie since he landed the role as Tommy. “I don’t want to look at Gary Lewis’s performance, He’s so brilliant in it so I don’t want to look at it. We just need to be our own thing.”

Orphans, for those who don’t remember or haven’t seen it, is the story of four grown-up Glasgow children who are mourning their late mother on the eve of her funeral while a storm approaches. Bissett and her team are now transforming that story into a big, showy musical. Which requires Florence to sing, of course.

“I’ve always sang a lot. I walk around the house singing to myself. So it’s not so much that. It’s knowing how to use your voice, how to protect your voice,” he says.

“We auditioned him on Zoom,” Bissett recalls. “We sent him down a song and he just nailed it. We were in bits when he performed this song. He can do that repressed emotion, but you can tell that there’s such a gentleness and vulnerability there as well. He doesn’t milk it, it’s just there.

“And when he opens his mouth to sing … Oh my God. There’s a heart the size of a planet that just comes out. And that’s exactly what we wanted. We wanted the repression, but the song allows us to see what’s underneath it all. That’s just a joy.”

Yes, the songs. They are the work of Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly, working with playwright Douglas Maxwell who has written the book for the musical. Hart is best known as a singer and broadcaster, but with Reilly has been writing music for films and TV for a number of years now, including the songs for the Scottish zombie romcom Anna and the Apocalypse, as well as Our Ladies and Animaniacs for Hulu (winning an Emmy for the latter).

HeraldScotland: Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly. Photograph Colin MearnsRoddy Hart and Tommy Reilly. Photograph Colin Mearns

Orphans, Hart says, was a chance to do a Scottish musical “that is not apologetic in any way but is widescreen and open-hearted and speaks in a Scottish voice. That was the attraction for us.”

Which is maybe a good time as any to bring up the elephant in the room. Musical theatre. It’s not pop. It’s not classical and all too often it’s not as good as either, is it? Or is that just me?

“It’s only at home I hate it,” says Maxwell. “When I’m in the theatre I think, ‘This is total theatre.’

“When we got together what was exciting was, we were all into ‘music music’ as well as liking musical theatre,” he continues. “It wasn’t just talking about that bit in West Side Story. It was talking about that bit on Hats by the Blue Nile.

“Quite a lot of the time when I work with people in musical theatre they can talk about that sound in Waitress, but they can’t talk about Loveless by My Bloody Valentine. And I need both.

“But I think people who love musical theatre are going to love the music in this, but if you don’t like it, I still think you’ll like it. ‘That’s a bit like Born in a Storm from Raintown.’

“Too much the other way … if it’s just Loveless … you’re playing to 14 people.”

HeraldScotland: Douglas Maxwell. Photograph Colin MearnsDouglas Maxwell. Photograph Colin Mearns

Hart doesn’t think musical theatre needs any defence. “For me, a good song is a good song. If it’s well written, if it’s crafted - and in musical theatre when it’s good it’s been crafted - it’s undeniably brilliant.

“There’s a reason why Tom Waits does a cover of Somewhere from West Side Story, one of the best songs of all time.”

That said, writing a song and writing a song for a musical are very different challenges. What he and Reilly have had to learn over the years is how to advance the story in song. “If it doesn’t serve the character, if it doesn’t serve the story, then you’re dead.”

But that’s the fun part, suggests Reilly. “That’s the bit we’ve become addicted to. It’s like a puzzle, a solvable problem. Also, musically, there’s total freedom. You can do things in a musical song that you wouldn’t do in a song for an album.”

And the result? “It is a musical but it’s for people who don’t like musicals,” Hart suggests.

“It’s Rodgers and Hammerstein with a lot more swearing in it,” Maxwell adds.

He starts to sing-speak a line from the script. “Apologies if I’ve been somewhat blunt …”

Hart smiles as he let’s me work out the rhyme. “We definitely go there.”

Rab Florence’s relationship to the form is a simple one. “I absolutely love musicals. I love All that Jazz. I love Cabaret.

“When I grew up my mum and my da were much older than me …” He laughs at his own words. “Obviously, they were my parents. But they were much older than normal parents.”

As a result, he says, “I kind of grew up on musicals. And comedy musicals. My dad even loved the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby road films.

“I’ve always loved musicals, so being in one is great.”

HeraldScotland: Douglas Henshall and Stephen McCole in Peter Mullan's film OrphansDouglas Henshall and Stephen McCole in Peter Mullan's film Orphans

For him, he has realised, the real challenge is not the singing or knowing which part of the stage is upstage and which downstage (he’s still having to ask), but the emotions that this show taps into.

“As fun as it is, it’s also really sad. And when your parents are deid it’s even sadder. It’s tough.

“My parents were alive when I first saw the film. I said this to Peter Mullan the other day when he was in. I said I loved it, but my parents were alive. As much as I loved it, I didn’t completely get it. I suppose I had a wee bit of a disconnect with the surrealism and the heightened nature of it.

“When I was younger, I thought that was a stylistic choice. But now, having been through the experience, it is such a surreal time, and you go off the rails. I went through all of that after my ma died and so I get it much more now I would say.

“If you Google my name there’s a story about a pub called Box in Sauchiehall Street. And I ended up waking up in Box sitting in a toilet cubicle and the pub was shut and I was locked in.

“I managed to play it off. My default is, ‘I’ll make it into a funny thing.’ But my ma died the week before. I was completely hammered in Box that night. I was upset and messaging people on the phone and fell asleep in the cubicle. That was me in the total throes of grief.

“I didn’t say to anybody my ma has just died. It’s the one thing I didn’t say which really explains that kind of stuff. The show is about that kind of night, The horrible thing about it is, it’s not just a night.”

He tells me a story about sitting in rehearsals with fellow actor Paul McCole (whose brother Stephen was in the original film). “The two of us were greetin’ at the songs.”

Florence’s mum died six years ago but rehearsing for the show he’s realised that he is still processing her loss. It’s an ongoing process. “It’s still there because when I’m doing the show, I can just feel it.”

And maybe in these not-quite-post-pandemic times we can all feel a little of that.

 

“It’s so funny,” agrees Bissett. “Stories take on different resonances for the time’s you are living in. No one foresaw the pandemic coming, but actually as we were living through it, Jackie texted me: ‘Oh my God, Orphans has become really prescient now.’

“Because it is about grief and many people have lived through a literal experience of that; losing loved ones and not even being able to be with them at the end and the horror of that and the absurdity we’ve all lived with.

“But, also, a lot of people have lost their businesses, relationships have split. The amount of people moving home. The mental health. All these slower aftershock effects of the pandemic, I think, resonate in this piece as well.

“It is absolutely a fun night out, but I think in the room on various numbers particularly when Rab is singing … he sings beautifully I think he will wow people … we’re all in bits. And then we’re laughing next minute. It just pulls you from pillar to post.

HeraldScotland: Cora BissettCora Bissett

“It’s just a very human story of our times right now. Whatever your grief is, whatever you have lost over these past two years, I think it will speak to you.

“But it’s also a story of quiet hope. Peter Mullan is never one for great sentimentality and has given me strict orders … Don’t know if I will totally follow that to the word.

“You can have both. In Peter’s film the family is ripped apart through the film, but they do come back together quietly. It’s not a big Disney woo, but It’s a more Scottish way of forward movement.”

Roddy Hart agrees. “There is a collective trauma emerging. There’s an added weight that’s in there and we probably brought a lot of that baggage to it by the fact of when we were doing it.

“In a way it kind of saved us over the last few years and we hope just a little bit of that will be transferred to audiences who might feel some kind of recognition factor or comfort in watching it.”

We’re back to the idea of Doctor Theatre. And not just for the performers.

“I’ve been to a few plays, and I think audiences now are leaning into it, they’re wanting it,” says Douglas Maxwell. “And I think this show is so big and it’s so … I hate saying it’s good. It doesn’t feel natural coming out of my mouth … But there is something about this. I think they’ll come, and I think it will give them something really powerful.

“This is really unapologetic. This is a big set, huge cast. It’s subsidised theatre at its best. A commercial company couldn’t take a risk on something like Orphans. National Theatre Scotland can come in and say there is an audience for this, a big Scottish audience is going to connect to this. Let’s risk it.”

Orphans is a risk. Orphans is a musical for people who might not like musicals. Orphans started out as a small idea, but if it works it will blossom into a great big affirmative. A celebration of theatre and a celebration of life. That’s worth taking a chance on.

Orphans opens at the Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock on April 1 and continues on April 2, then transfers to SEC Armadillo, Glasgow, April 6-April 9; King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, April 12-April 16; and Eden Court, Inverness, April 26-April 30