Steps back in time: John Binnie gives Sarah Hemming a guided tour of the locations that inspired A Little Older, the winner of the 1992 Independent Theatre Award for best new play
Wednesday 21 October 1992
Experiences and scenes from his life in Glasgow loom large in most of John Binnie's plays. Over the past six years, he and Clyde Unity, the company he co- founded, have carved out a reptutation for plays that portray life for young Glaswegians with a very direct charm and wit. And beginning with his first play (Mum, Dad, There's Something I've Got To Tell You, which deals with a young man's gauche attempts to inform his parents that he is gay), Binnie has incorporated tricky incidents from his own past in his drama. In his most recent play, however - A Little Older, which won the Independent Theatre Award at this year's Edinburgh Festival - a chapter from his life took over without his intending it.
The play, which opens for its London showcase at the Hampstead Theatre next week, gives a poignant and funny account of the relationship between a sharp- tongued minister's daughter, Isla, and her shy gay friend, Sandy. Having befriended one another at primary school, the pair have formed a fiercely loyal alliance, and when Isla suffers amnesia following a bad car crash, it is Sandy's ability to help her relive their friendship that brings her back to herself. Binnie had had the two characters and the nature of their friendship in mind for some time when he came to write the play, but the premise was foisted upon him by an accident in his own family.
'Five weeks before the Edinburgh Festival, when we were due to open the play, we were performing at the Glasgow Citizens' Theatre in MacWizard Fae Oz. When we came off stage my wee brother was waiting for me. My dad had fallen from a scaffold. It was horrible. He was in intensive care on a life-support machine and we thought he was going to die. We had three weeks at the Citz and then two weeks to rehearse before the Festival. We'd go to the hospital in the morning, do the matinee, go to the hospital, do the evening show, and then go home with my mum. Life was just hospital and theatre and that was all I knew. And I realised I just had to write this play.'
Binnie was aware that a drama so close to home could cause pain to himself and his parents (his father has since made a good recovery), not to mention the effect it might have on the audience.
'I was worried about using the experience. So I asked my mum and dad if they would mind. My mum always wants me to write nice, happy plays, but she said 'If you have to write one about your dad, well, it's what you know.' I don't think it was using the situation; it was all I could write about . . . but I realise it is an incredible responsibility. I've always thought that as a writer you have to be absolutely sure of what you're doing, because you're making a huge statement by anything you put on stage. But it's not a hospital play - I felt that gave it a strength.'
The play won praise for its honesty, for the humour with which it draws the friendship - which relies largely on caustic insults - and for the performances (by Stephen Docherty and Mari Binnie, the playwright's sister). The warm, nostalgic childhood scenes are also based on reality, on Binnie's childhood in Kilsyth ('It's not idealised - I know it sounds nauseating, but my childhood really was very happy').
Many of Binnie's plays appear to have a soft centre, yet the company has performed them to tough audiences in community centres in outlying parts of Glasgow. Binnie counts these experiences as among the most significant the company has had. 'I didn't think my plays would go down at all there. In Love among the Juveniles there was a scene where two men stripped down to their boxer shorts and kissed. Playing places like Castlemilk and Coatbridge was extremely scary: you could hear people bristling and saying 'Oh no, they're not really going to do this . . .' Adolescent boys are the worst; really aggressive. On the other hand, we were performing Killing Me Softly out in Milton: just before the show went up only a handful of people had turned up, and it was a barn of a place. Then at the last minute two bus-loads of OAPs arrived - mostly old ladies in their Sunday best. We thought 'Oh no, this is completely the wrong play for them'. So we shoved the stage manager out on to the stage and he said 'Look, ladies and gentlemen, there's swearing in this play and there are also gay characters. So if it offends, you'd maybe be best to go now.' And they said 'Och, we knew that anyway, son; just get on and do the play]' '
Clyde Unity chose its name in tribute to the original Glasgow Unity company, which, working in the 1940s, sought to establish a body of drama about Scottish life. 'We wanted to follow their ideals,' says Binnie. 'They used to do brilliant things. They did The Lower Depths in a Scottish dialect and they toured it round the pits, performing it at 6am when the miners came up.'
Clyde Unity is determined to retain this element of the company's work, yet the subject matter of their plays is rarely overtly political. 'I think we've always been very personal,' admits Binnie. 'But I do believe that the personal is political. We try to represent how we as young people have been growing up in Scotland, governed by a government we hadn't voted for.'
Binnie is sometimes criticised for returning frequently to the same territory. Many of his plays, for instance, feature a close relationship between a heterosexual girl and a homosexual boy. 'It's a relationship that is very much part of my life,' says Binnie, shrugging. 'The audience may feel cheated, they may think 'Oh I'm not going to see it because it sounds like the same story.' But plays aren't stories. Usually that's the first question you get in an interview 'What's the story?' Now, if you told the story of Hamlet, you wouldn't really go away with an impression of the play. You can tackle it from so many angles . . . With this play I was interested in the way fate intervenes in life and can change a character so completely.'
Binnie's most recent plays have had a strong streak of fantasy. A Little Older celebrates the power of Sandy's imagination to create memories strong enough to reach Isla; his previous play, Beyond the Rainbow, started from Judy Garland's visit to Glasgow in 1951, and created a fictitious situation where a young fan kidnaps her and shows her round for a day. 'I just imagined what I would have done if I'd been there in 1951,' says Binnie. 'I would definitely have taken her to Kelvingrove Park and for a ride on a tram and home for a cup of tea.'
'A Little Older' opens on 28 Oct (preview 27 Oct) at Hampstead Theatre, London NW3 (071-722 9301).
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