BY the time I arrived at Oran Mor, last Monday lunchtime, the queue was snaking up the stairs from the basement theatre-cum-nightclub; and the rumour was that the food counter beside the bar had run out of pies.
Over the past year, the audiences for the Play, Pie And Pint season’s lunchtime shows – one short new play a week, for 35 weeks of the year – have been growing so rapidly that finding a seat in the crowded space can be a problem, and the supply of pies occasionally fails to keep pace with the swelling crowd.
And today, the Play, Pie and Pint team have been taken by surprise by the sheer popularity of this week’s play, Wake Me In The Morning, a fierce, sexy tragi-comedy by former Citizens’ director Jeremy Raison about the sad death in 1962 of the Hollywood superstar Marilyn Monroe, and the affair with President John F Kennedy that preceded it. It’s not the greatest drama ever seen at Oran Mor; most of the detail is all too familiar. Yet the show is sassy, clever, poetic, and pretty well acted by the gorgeous Kirsty McDuff as the Blonde, with Bill Wright as the President, and Ewan Donald as his younger brother; and the audience applauds enthusiastically.
What’s not happening today, though, is the extended pre-show announcement from Play, Pie and Pint’s great founder and producer, David MacLennan, that was until recently a vital part of the Oran Mor show. For last week, MacLennan made it publicly known that he has motor neurone disease, and has been told that the diagnosis is terminal; and now, he watches quietly from the side of the auditorium, while his co-producer Susannah Armitage steps into the limelight.
To say that his news represents a cruel blow not only to MacLennan’s family and friends but to the whole world of Scottish theatre, is to understate the case. As a co-founder of the 7:84 Scotland Theatre Company in 1973, and later joint artistic director with David Anderson of 7:84’s rock-based sister company Wildcat, Mac-Lennan is a key figure in linking the past, present and future of Scottish theatre. And his emergence in 2004 as the creative powerhouse behind the Play, Pie and Pint season – after the cruel loss of Wildcat’s funding in the late 1990s – has simply transformed the landscape of Scottish theatre, creating vast new opportunities for writers of any age who want to try something new in a supportive and unfussy environment, with no bureaucratic strings attached. The Play, Pie and Pint model has now been copied in cities from Philadelphia to Moscow; and has spread across Scotland, with co-productions now appearing regularly in Edinburgh, Dundee, Perth, Aberdeen and Ayr.
The formula devised by MacLennan ten years ago is so robust, in other words, that its future seems almost guaranteed, whatever the next years bring. At the moment, MacLennan is still working, at a rate that would put many 65-year-olds to shame. With David Anderson, he co-wrote the recent Oran Mor Christmas panto. With David Greig, he is curating the National Theatre of Scotland’s The Great Yes, No Don’t Know Five Minute Theatre Show on the independence referendum; and the next season of Play, Pie and Pint shows is already on the stocks.
There is something irreplaceable, though, about MacLennan’s unfailing energy and enthusiasm, his uncompromising radical politics, and the easy internationalism that has seen Play, Pie And Pint build links with theatre companies from London and Dublin to Beijing and Barcelona. Like his late, great brother-in-law John McGrath, MacLennan speaks for a bold postwar generation who will strive to be creative and rambunctious to the last, and will not go gently into any goodnight they may face. And anyone who loves theatre, or who cares for the creative life of Scotland, must wish MacLennan and all those around him well; as they work to keep that flame of energy, rebellion and richness alive, through the most difficult of times.