“THE thing that jumped out at me when I read it was the idea of him as a Roald Dahl character,” playwright James Ley says. He is talking about Damian Barr’s memoir Maggie & Me, a story of growing up gay amidst 1980s west of Scotland dysfunctionality, and I can immediately see it: the young Damian as Charlie Bucket or James Henry Trotter, maybe; a child from a troubled family searching for a Golden Ticket, or a magical peach ride to a better, brighter future.

Ley and Barr are holed up in an office in Rockvilla, the headquarters of the National Theatre of Scotland, where they are collaborating on their stage adaptation of the book. The production, which premieres at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre in May, is not, they stress, a straightforward retelling of the events of the memoir, more an exploration of what it cost to write it, and the transformation it wrought. Though its subject matter is grim – homophobia, alcohol dependency and abuse – it will channel some of Dahl’s dark fantasy, along with the agitprop spirit of 7:84.

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For a start, there will be two Damians on stage: one a boy, one 28 (the age Barr was when he started writing Maggie & Me); the pair will interact and reflect on each other’s experiences. Also in the thick of it will be Margaret Thatcher catapulted straight from the Brighton bombing to a corner of Scotland her deindustrialisation policies were designed to ravage.

“When I thought about recreating Maggie & Me for the stage, I knew I wanted to have an older and younger version of myself because I think we all move through life carrying all our past selves with us,” Barr says. “Then James said: ‘Maggie runs all through your book. Can we have her on stage too?’ And suddenly we had a play.”

The Thatcher the audience will encounter is not the Iron Lady who captured Barr’s childhood imagination, but a “clownish” figure unsure what she is doing transposed to this chaotic mindscape.

“When I was young, I saw her as a glamorous outsider,” Barr says. “I felt sad for her because she was hated and I felt hated too. But as an adult, I want to acknowledge she was a person who made choices. Characterising her as a villain lets her off the hook.”

Barr’s memoir is dominated by the hulking presence of Ravenscraig where his father worked. Some of its most powerful passages are about the way the steelworks imprinted themselves on both the night sky and his father’s face. “My dad is always minerals,” he writes. “The whites of his eyes and his smiling falsers sparkle out from the coal-black rest of him."

“Isn’t Ravenscraig also a protagonist?” I ask. “Absolutely, and its demise is pivotal to the play: it’s the point where the personal meets the political,” Barr says. “The way we are dramatising its closure is quite a The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil moment,” adds Ley.

The Herald: Margaret ThatcherMargaret Thatcher (Image: free)

Later, the play’s director Suba Das, the former creative director of Liverpool Everyman, shows me images of set designs on his phone. The first is of Barr’s writing shed where past events, including the Brighton bombing, threaten to overwhelm him. Other childhood haunts – the steelworks, the Bing, Carfin Grotto – have the phantasmagoric quality of places heightened by memory.

Ley, whose often-raucous plays also deal with LGBT identity, first approached Barr several years ago to ask him if he’d like to take on the role of visiting writer in his breakthrough drama Love Song to Lavender Menace. Barr was already committed elsewhere but soon the two were talking about Maggie & Me. “We grew up with very different backgrounds,” says Ley who comes from Edinburgh, “but we are the same age and have loads of shared experience.

“One of the things that really attracted me to the story is the resilience of LGBTQ-identifying kids, and how that [sexuality] is an extra layer of struggle always. Damian epitomises that because he had to over-achieve to get out of his situation.”

Neither writer wanted to adapt the book alone, Barr because he did not want to excavate his trauma a second time without moral support, and Ley because he wanted Barr’s input. But the collaboration has thrown up challenges for them both. Though Ley has written about real people before – Love Song to Lavender Menace tells the story of Bob Orr and Sigrid Nielsen who founded Scotland’s first LGBT bookshop – he has never done so with the person involved sitting in the same room.

Maggie & Me has not yet been finally cast as we speak, but actors are working on the script as Barr and Ley continue to tweak it. “I am very aware as we go towards production that we are opening up the story to more and more people who have a creative buy-in,” Ley says. “I take my hat off to Damian because I don’t know if I would like that.”

As for Barr, he has had to learn a new form of writing and “to get comfortable with talking about myself in the third person like some pretentious Salvador Dali figure”. He finds it tough to watch the most painful events of his life played out in front of him.

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“There have been times when I have thought: ‘I’m done with this,” he says. But there have also been moments of healing. “Yesterday, the actor playing my mum took the hand of the younger and older Damian and spoke to them both,” he says. “I realised I was crying, but it was a cry of joy, like: ‘This is wonderful’. I want everybody who comes to see the play to feel that, and to feel it is their story too.”

Eleven years on from the book’s publication and the death of Thatcher earlier the same month, Barr and Ley believe it has a renewed urgency. “I think when Maggie & Me came out, we were seduced by the idea that social, economic and political progress was in one direction; that everything was getting better,” Barr says. "But since then, we have seen so much regression. When I was young, we had Section 28. There is an active threat again now, with Rishi Sunak enacting policies harmful to the whole LGBT community, but particularly to trans people. The play is a warning and an invitation to say: ‘We cannot afford to despair.’ We must resist, and how do you resist? You resist by telling your story, you resist by being honest about your pain and suffering, and not having to bear that silently.”

Barr, who now lives in Brighton, is convinced writing Maggie & Me saved his life; it allowed him to come to an accommodation with his past and move on. It also helped mend his relationship with his parents. So will they be in the front row on opening night? Barr takes a long time to answer. “My mum couldn’t be more supportive of me as a person now, and always has been,” he says carefully, “but it has not always been easy. I think she carries a lot of guilt about how she was as a parent so I am not sure.”

Does he want her there? “In many ways this play is a love letter to my parents, so I’d *like* them to come, but I’ve reached a point in my life where I don’t *need* them to come,” he says. “Does that make sense?” It does. It’s about being secure in his own skin, and a testament to how far he’s come.

Maggie & Me is on at the Tron Theatre from Wednesday, May 8 until Saturday, May 11 (all dates sold out) before going on tour to Inverness, Perth, Cumbernauld, Dundee, Northampton and Edinburgh.