DCSIMG

What if Burns turned up in your kitchen?

That's the question posed by Liz Lochhead's off-the-wall new play, the first in a BBC Scotland series.

IT'S ONCE again the season of steamy eviscerations, as the Ayrshire Bard is toasted, misappropriated and dissected along with the haggis. So here's to a heav'n taught ploughman, radical dissenter, nationalist, freemason, sexist… and Bob Dylan fan?

Haud on: there's more. In Liz Lochhead's new play, the poet materialises without a by-your-leave in the 21st-century London kitchen of Roberta McGee, an exiled and divorced Scot and college lecturer, and decidedly not a woman given to Burnsian frolics. He turns out to be not only a devotee of Mr Zimmerman, but of also of Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell – you name them. Scotland's songwriter par excellence may have succumbed to rheumatic fever in 1796, but he's clearly kept up to speed on anyone who's chewed a pencil stub over a lyric since.

The mid-life Roberta's close encounter with the immortal Robert (they share a birthday) is the stuff of Lochhead's My Heart's in the Highlands, which kicks off BBC Radio Scotland's drama programme for 2008 next Friday – the Bard's birthday.

This surreal, if wryly affectionate ploy manages to wrap up Burns Night with empty-nest syndrome and seasonal depression, and is laced with characteristically waspish Lochhead wit – "Nigella? Whit's she got to do with the price of Spam in Dumbarton?" retorts Roberta's mother during a discussion of haggis.

"Most fantasies start with 'What if?'" says Lochhead. "I was listening to Raymond Briggs talking about The Snowman, and what if the snowman came indoors? So if you start with a bit of fantasy, then go about it quite logically – what if Burns could be in your kitchen?"

Lochhead is reclining expansively, replete with cowboy boots, on a sofa in the control room of Castlesound Studios in Pencaitland, East Lothian, where the play is being recorded. It has its poke at Burns cultists – "facetious nudge-nudge, wink-wink speeches, 'Toasting the Lassies' from lecherous, misogynistic old Rotarian farts," as her character declares in a Burnsophobic diatribe – but Lochhead stresses that while many might take a scunner to the worst excesses of the Burnsiana, Burns's poetry and song is something else.

"I also had this idea about depression," she adds. "I've always been sure that Burns was a bit of a manic depressive himself."

Castlesound has seen the creation of some landmark recordings, from the Corries to Deacon Blue, since it was established in a former primary school building back in 1978.

Today, however, there is only the disembodied voice of Siobhan Redmond, unseen in the acoustic dead zone of a booth, where she is lamenting that she's not one of those actors who can handle infinite numbers of script pages without rustling them. Redmond, who plays Roberta, has travelled up from London overnight, having just finished playing the termagent wife Adriana in The Comedy of Errors with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Elsewhere are Ann Scott-Jones, who plays Roberta's bemused mum, and Lewis Howden, who plays the singularly undead lad from Kyle.

As Burns once said about the writing of a song, the making of a radio play is no trifling business. In the control room, resident engineer Stuart Hamilton presides over the console as broadcasting assistant Carrie Gibbons keeps a close eye on her stopwatch. Producer Kirsty Williams looks on, conferring with Lochhead, who follows the script, sometimes mouthing the lines or offering the odd suggestion – "camp it up a bit"; or, when Howden declaims from To a Louse, she suggests upping the "eeeugh" factor.

There are moments of unscripted hilarity, as when Redmond and Howden are recording their kitchen encounter, Redmond dissolving into hysterics at Burns's line "cock up your beaver" (it actually refers to headgear).

Lochhead's script deftly stitches Burns straight into Burns pastiche – "fair fa' your honest, sonsie face… Ah, Bisto!". Then there's the revelation that the poet nurtures a fondness for Dylan, especially the latter's song Highlands, which was itself inspired by My Heart's in the Highlands, one of Burns's blander lyrics which (probably by dint of being in plain English, rather than pithy Scots) is universally known.

Burns, who has already manifested his improbable presence in Roberta's kitchen using fridge magnets as a sort of bardic ouija board, confesses himself "chuffed tae the gutties at the homage".

"I've always known that Bob Dylan really loved Burns," says Lochhead, "but, once again, what if?"

Despite the potentially irksome interruptions of the recording process, she loves the medium – "With radio, a breath can tell a story" – and she gives credit to the cast, all of whom have worked with her material in the past, as well as with each other.

This prompts much banter during lunch, as Howden reveals that he once played Redmond's scary sister in a production of Janice Galloway's The Secret is to Keep Breathing.

Redmond has exactly that slightly knowing, conspiratorial tone one associates with Lochhead – but which doesn't, however, stop the actress having some trouble with a reference to "Lenny Cohen". Williams ask her to do it again. "It's because I hate calling him Lenny Cohen," protests the voice from the booth. "It's like lse majest."

"Call him what you like," responds Lochhead.

"No. I'll stick to Lenny, because he's such a miserable bastard."

"My radio career and my career in vision have rarely intersected," Redmond, 48, tells me during a break. "Since I first worked in radio I've played sort of heartless minxes and women who are possessed of a cruel but tinkling laugh, because I sound like someone you might have an affair with – and I don't always necessarily look like that, so I have a lovely time on radio."

She gives a throaty cackle, which puts me in mind of the sinister identical twins she once played on the TV drama Sea of Souls.

The last Lochhead radio that Redmond did was Maleficium, about witchcraft. Now, it seems, she's still stuck with the supernatural, but at least she's being chatted up by the ghost of Robert Burns.

&#149 My Heart's In the Highlands is on Radio Scotland on 25 January, 11:30am

THE LONG WAVE

MY HEART'S In The Highlands, which is set to air next Friday, is the first play in BBC Radio Scotland's programme of new drama for 2008. Future productions include:

&#149 14 February: A Most Civil Arrangement, by Colin Hough. As her daughter's wedding looms, Isobel is coming to terms with the fact that she is marrying another woman. But her feelings for her future daughter-in-law take an unexpected turn, in what is described as "a dark comic monologue" delivered by Barbara Rafferty.

&#149 10 March: The shade of R D Laing is hovering as comedian Dylan Moran makes a foray into playwriting with an as-yet-untitled dialogue between a patient and a psychologist, who turns out to be something much more sinister.

&#149 April (date to be confirmed): Frozen. Iain Finlay Macleod's play concerns a fish farmer who is inspired by the late Walt Disney's supposed obsession with cryogenics to freeze his head (the fisherman's, that is).

&#149 Plays later in the year will include the radio debut of award-winning young Scottish playwright Morna Pearson (October), a new drama from established playwright and River City scriptwriter Louise Ironside, plus excursions on to the airwaves from Alexander McCall Smith and David Greig.

 
 
 

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