A woman of some importance

The poet Liz Lochhead looks back on the long, sometimes painful, birth of her new play We thought silence was the worst an audience could do until we discovered the pensioners' club
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The Independent Culture
Saturday 23 Oct 1993, Govanhill, Glasgow Lewis Bowden and I finish the last night of a short tour of Quel-ques Fleurs. "I really don't feel as if that was the last time I'll play this," says Lewis. I do. I'm a good seven years too old for the part and, much as I've enjoyed moonlighting, I've go t to admit I'm a writer, not an actress.

For the last three weeks we've performed this pair of intercut and interconnected monologues as oil-rig worker and stay-at-home wife, Derek and Verena, in what has been - when They've Laughed - a bleakly funny portrait of a three weeks on, three weeks off marriage. A bleak portrait of same when - occasionally, mystifyingly - They Haven't Laughed At All. We thought silence was the worst an audience could do to us until we discovered the Pensioners' Club in the East End of Glasgow where every single member was afflicted by a Productive Cough.

The last night? I've done four short runs of this over the past couple of years. This time with a new Derek, Lewis, whose instincts have pushed me to a satisfyingly radical rewriting of his part, adding a horrible twist to the plot and upping the ante. We know this is right. Derek, three years ago, was an off-stage character in his wife's monologues. Now he is at least as real as she, and with a very different slant on the same story.

"Too good to never do again," says Lewis. OK. Next time we get an actress.

Friday 24 June 1994, London Round to Carolyn Bonnyman's for an informal read-through. Champagne, because she's agreed to be Verena in Quelques Fleurs alongside Lewis for three weeks at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. They'll do a 2.15pm show every day, then at 5pm both are going to be in my version of Moliere's Tartuffe, Carolyn in a demanding leading role. I can't think of anyone else I'd ask this of. The sheer volume of lines to learn would be enough to daunt anyone with any sense. But she's agreed to put herself through the daily mill of switching between the comic naturalism of Verena and the stylised, all-rhyming high comedy of Elmire.

Carolyn knows Verena of old. When she and Lynn Ferguson did stand-up as the Alexander Sisters, we were often on at the same benefit nights and comedy venues. I'd do one of the Verena comic monologues, the character in one of her earlier, pre-play manifestations.

I wrote the first Verena monologue, Security, for Siobhan Redmond to perform in a revue in 1981. "That oil widow character has legs," predicted Marilyn Imrie who eventually, 11 years later, directed the radio play she wanted - about the same character atanother point in her life. Over the years I've been influenced by Joyce Grenfell, Victoria Wood, Barry Humphries - especially in his sad Sandy Stone persona. Banality taken to the baroque.

And I don't know how one can do anything with the monologue form and not acknowledge a debt to the Master, Alan Bennett. Remember that first Patricia Routlege rendering of A Woman of No Importance? ("Talking Heads", says Alan Bennett, "a synonym for boredom. And Miss Schofield is a bore. But to have her in full close up, retailing in unremitting detail how she borrowed the salt in the canteen, takes one, I hope, beyond tedium"). Relentless detail - total recall of sweet FA - combined with an awesome self-absorption, makes Verena, I hope, a compelling character on stage. Especially once she starts to suffer.

And yet in real life one would no sooner spend an evening with her than one would choose to be stuck (beer cans underfoot like ballbearings) on the oil- rig special, on the rattler between Aberdeen and Glasgow, with Derek on his way home. All narrators are finally unreliable, and as the audience begins to beg to differ, things get interesting. Get dramatic. Characters on whom one first of all has a securely comic handle grow realer, more complex, more pitiable as they grow more monstrous.

Tonight is just a read-through. No need to do more than mark where there is a comma, where there is a full stop and where a sentence rattles on unpunctuated. And yet Carolyn is a little nervous. I'm more than a little jealous. Handing over. Especially when half an hour later, I know she is going to be brilliant.

Even the most optimistic budgetary projections show there isn't actually any possible profit in any of this and I'm asking Carolyn to leave home and husband for the rest of the summer for what? Well, two great parts she's perfect for. And the chance thatQuelques Fleurs, as a modest two-hander, will have legs. May make a good showcase for us all in London later? Say the Old Red Lion . . .?

n `Quelques Fleurs' with Lewis Howden and Carolyn Bonnyman plays at the Old Red Lion, Islington, London N1 8.30pm, except Mondays, to 28 January

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