The Missing: The only way to stage a house of horrors

Theatre is about to tackle the Fred and Rosemary West story. It will be unlike the recent TV drama, says Anna Burnside

John Tiffany first read Andrew O'Hagan's The Missing, a personal response to 25 Cromwell Street, in 1997. Could the book, he wondered in his capacity as literary manager of Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre, ever find a home on a stage?

He told O'Hagan that he wanted to do it, but didn't know how. "Andrew replied, 'Well, don't do it yet then,'" he says. "Very prescient."

More than a decade later, Tiffany, an associate director of the National Theatre of Scotland, is the man behind the wildly successful Black Watch. The NTS adaptation of O'Hagan's novel Be Near Me was also a triumph. "He got the bug," says Tiffany of the author, "being around the production, the actors. Afterwards he said, 'I think I'm ready to revisit The Missing.'"

This is not, to the untrained eye, a book that leaps on to the stage. It starts in O'Hagan's hometown, Irvine, when a small boy goes missing. It wanders around the notorious Glasgow murderer Bible John and finally arrives in Gloucester. Standing outside the home of the serial murderers Fred and Rosemary West's home, O'Hagan's reaction goes beyond revulsion towards the couple's barbarity. His horror is directed towards a society in which 11 young women can disappear without anyone asking where they are.

Tiffany rejected this narrative structure. He follows O'Hagan's chronology, rather than that of the book. The production starts with a magazine journalist, a version of O'Hagan's younger self, in Cromwell Street.

"We don't have to dramatise it and turn it into an ITV thriller," he says of the book. "I know now that we can put an experience on stage. There are different ways of exploring a subject and we don't want to sensationalise the material. This is very difficult stuff, it's based on real people.

"I've learned that an experience can be cumulative. I enjoyed that very much with Black Watch, which is not an obvious linear narrative at all. There are lots of different ways information is conveyed – news reports, video images – and we've brought those techniques to elements of the book."

The stage at Glasgow's Tramway, Tiffany says, is "basically a big LED screen, which also acts as a gauze. We can put people behind it and have them interact with images in quite a surreal way."

Tiffany's cast includes Joe McFadden, far from Heartbeat territory, as the O'Hagan figure. Tiffany calls him "the pilgrim, or the seeker". The other five actors, including Brigit Forsyth (Thelma in Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?) are over 60. They play all the other parts: police officers, parents, friends and siblings of the bereaved. There is no representation of any of the missing. The actors swap genders, keep the same low-key costumes and use their own accents.

"When we first started," said Tiffany, "we had a bigger cast, lots of different ages. Then I decided wanted five older actors to play all the characters. I wanted experience and grief that was almost within them, even if they are playing a 16-year-old."

There is one costume device – the director calls it "a tiny vocabulary we've found and it's not a hat" – to help the audience decode character. Initially the actors were worried, but Tiffany persevered.

"I find something quite distracting about big accents. I watched Appropriate Adult [ITV's recent drama about the Wests] and I hated it when they went all Gloucester. It helps that we're not pretending for a second that this is real. It's a theatrical exploration of a book."

The Missing, although in a minor key, is not without flourishes. Forsyth plays the cello and there is movement, if not actual dancing. But this is not, says the director, "a well-made play".

He says: "To turn these kind of narratives into well-made plays you have to find resolution. And we didn't want to have to do that. With these stories, there's no resolution. You never find out what happens to them."

The Missing, Tramway, Glasgow (0845 330 3501), 15 September to 1 October

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