Alan Wilkins, playwright and teacher

Born: July 6, 1969;

Died: September 7, 2022

Alan Wilkins, who has died aged 52, was a playwright and teacher, whose boundless curiosity fed into several acclaimed works. He also led countless drama workshops in schools and prisons, where his natural sense of empathy saw him enable those from less privileged backgrounds to thrive creatively.

Much of Wilkins’ writing explored facets of his own world. This was probably most apparent in The Nest (2004), which looked at the hillwalking community gathered in a Highland bothy. He later fed his experiences working as a barman in a Wester Ross hotel into Offshore (2008), produced by the Birds of Paradise company. He wrote Can We Live With You (2008), produced by Lung Ha Theatre Company in Edinburgh, the same year.

While these possessed a warmth and a self-deprecating wit that marked Wilkins’ own personality, it was the play he wrote inbetween, Carthage Must Be Destroyed (2007), that was his masterpiece. Set in ancient Rome during the third Punic War, Wilkins’ drama looked at power, politics and a decadent undercurrent behind both in what felt at the time like ferociously of-the-moment concerns.

Carthage went on to be named as Best New Play at the 2008 Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland, and was revived in a new production by its original director Lorne Campbell at the Ustinov Theatre in Bath the same year. A New York production was planned, but fell victim to the financial crash. Given the current state of the world, Wilkins’ defining work is crying out to be seen again.

Alan Geoffrey Wilkins was born in Bedford, England, the second of four sons to Vera (nee Grainger) and Ernie Wilkins. He grew up in Blackhall, Edinburgh, where his father was head of chemistry at Stewart’s Melville College, and where Wilkins was educated. His father was a hillwalker and obsessive Munro bagger, fuelling Wilkins’ own passion by way of the school hillwalking club.

Also at school, Wilkins co-founded a new magazine, The Political Register, with his professional sights initially set on journalism. His quick wit, masterful knowledge and deft way with an argument saw him also become a success with the school debating society, where he was often partnered with future playwright and artistic director of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, David Greig.

Wilkins’ ability to think on his feet saw him become a debating champion, and he was commended for what the judges called his ‘Churchillian’ style. One of his opponents was future Conservative MP Michael Gove, who was defeated by Wilkins on more than one occasion. At future events, it was clear to anyone who knew Wilkins that Gove was copying his moves, albeit without the same success.

Wilkins joined Edinburgh Youth Theatre, while an early job at Rae Macintosh music shop fired a life-long love of jazz and classical music. He went on to study English and Theatre Studies at the University of Glasgow under the late Alasdair Cameron. Contemporaries included playwright Nicola McCartney and director John Tiffany, and he was involved with university drama as well as the university magazine. His first move into acting came in a production of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, as part of a cast that included Eugene Kelly of Glasgow band The Vaselines.

After university, Wilkins acted in Barlinnie Prison Special Unit, worked as an extra on STV soap, Take the High Road, and taught English in Poznan, Poland. He also reconnected with Greig, and appeared at The Arches venue in a double bill of work by Suspect Culture, the company set up by Greig with director Graham Eatough. Wilkins went on to appear in Airport (1996), another Suspect Culture production. While touring Spain with the show, Wilkins decided to stay on, teaching English in Madrid.

Wilkins spent summers in Badachroc, then Wester Ross, where he worked as a hotel barman, living in a tiny caravan where he read his way through the Penguin Classics catalogue and listened to the Naxos classical music library.

His early play, Childish Things (1998), was given a reading at the Traverse. Another, Cafetaria/Restaurant (1999), was read by drama students from RSAMD at the Tron in Glasgow.

Wilkins led workshops as part of the Traverse’s schools playwriting programme, Class Act, as well as other schemes in Polmont Young Offenders Centre. He responded best to tougher situations, and his work with Fife Young Carers inspired Greig’s play for young people, The Monster in the Hall.

Wilkins went on to teach drama at Inverkeithing High School. Despite increasing mobility issues, he continued writing, though a Traverse commission following Carthage Must be Destroyed, entitled The Obituarists, was never completed. Forfeit (2012), about life after prison, appeared at Oran Mor in Glasgow as part of the venue’s A Play, A Pie and A Pint season in a co-production with Dundee Rep. His final produced work, My Loneliness is Killing Me (2012), was a short piece based around issues of isolation and mental health, and was presented as part of the Traverse’s early morning Fringe season, Dream Plays (Scenes from a Play I'll Never Write).

As his mobility issues worsened, Wilkins could no longer roam the hills he loved so much, and he reduced his teaching at Edinburgh’s Royal High School to two days a week.

Wilkins’ death has robbed the world of one of its most curious talents, who left behind a body of work laced with humour, generosity and humanity that reflected the spirit with which he filled his own life.

He is survived by his mother Vera, and his three brothers, Andy, Roger and Richard.