MENTAL health, horror stories, the duality of being Gael-Glaswegian and video games obsession are all powerful themes which emerge in conversation with playwright Kenny Boyle. 

Why? How? They are all part of the personal experience of the Lewis-born actor/writer and feed into the content of his new play, Playthrough. The play features two “geeks” who play a Russian video game called Killswitch. 

“The story around Killswitch was that anyone who plays it will die,” says Boyle, of the 1980s phenomenon. “So what we are going to do is play it out on the Oran Mor stage, which has been designed to look like a gamers’ den, with lots of flashing lights and tech.”

That sounds fun. And certainly inventive. Boyle and BBC Scotland’s Scot Squad star, Karen Bartke play Biggs and Wedge (names lifted from Star Wars characters who found themselves in video game Final Fantasy) and as they play, we gain deep, dark insights into troubled minds. 

“I actually wrote the play nine years ago,” says Boyle. 

“I was going through a mental health problem at the time, but I managed to cope with my anxiety by playing video games. Meantime, growing up I had always been captivated by ghost stories, and I wanted to bring this campfire story concept into the video world.”

Why did it take so long for the story idea to find its way onto the stage? It transpires that gaming, at that time, was seen as the world of the geeky nocturnal teenager. It’s only in recent years that it’s been recognised that older people (the potential theatre audience) are heavily immersed in games culture. 

But wait a minute; isn’t video gaming the antithesis of the theatre experience? Isn’t gaming all about teenagers spending way too much of their precious allocated time on earth in a less-than-fresh bedroom, with their heads locked into an alternate universe? Shouldn’t theatre be about a shared experience which will inform and entertain? 

“Well, there was that impression of games originally,” says Boyle, smiling. “But so much has changed. Gamers now connect with each other. And games can give people that opportunity they may not have had.”

Kenny Boyle grew up in a croft in Cromore, a tiny village near Stornoway.  It’s quite remarkable that he went on to become an actor, form a theatre company and star in movie Lost at Christmas (alongside Sylvester McCoy and Claire Grogan) given there was no local theatre cinema. 

“When Jesus Christ Superstar came out, one of the ministers in Stornoway put a curse on the cinema,” he recalls with a shake of a disbelieving head. “But somehow, I was just in love with storytelling. When I wasn’t helping with the sheep, I would write little books for my mum and dad. I loved to tell tales, to share stories with other people, and then act out the story.”

The then schoolboy’s mind was opened up considerably when his parents landed teaching work in Glasgow. The family would live in the city during term times, and then go back and forward to Lewis. “During the time in Glasgow I attended Scottish Youth Theatre, and I loved it.”

The duality of existence for the youngster was fascinating. But was it a factor in developing mental health issues? “It definitely played into my anxiety,” he agrees. “When I was growing up, Gaelic was discouraged in our village. My mum and dad didn’t want our opportunities to be limited, and it could harm our chances in life by association because at the time, the only people who spoke Gaelic were seen as backward. For a while, I shied away from that side of me. I changed my name (from Coinneach). But now Gaelic is being celebrated.”

Boyle, an RSC graduate, now embraces Gaelic with a passion; he likes to drop Gaelic expressions into his new writing, which includes a Burns-themed play and a second novel. 

For the moment, he’s fascinated to see how Playthrough (perfectly timed for Halloween) will play out on the theatre stage, in particular to watch how the audience interacts. “Each performance will be different,” he says, grinning, “but we always play Killswitch.”

And does the 39-year-old still play video games? “Yes. I love them. It’s true escape. But I accept it can be unhealthy. That’s the issue the characters in the play have. They are obsessed. And sometimes that can affect your relationship and distort your perception of reality. It can be scary.”

“It’s this horror element I wanted to capture in the play,” he adds. “And I hope the audience will really enjoy it. But after all, who doesn’t love the danger, the thrill?”

Playthrough, Oran Mor, A Play, Pie and a Pint, Glasgow, until Saturday.

BOOK NOW Dundee Rep is re-staging the magical success story of 2021, the Dickens classic A Christmas Carol, with Scrooge and co appearing in musical theatre form, with guaranteed laughs.