Interview: Douglas Maxwell, playwright

DOUGLAS Maxwell has a refreshingly honest way of telling you how badly his plays nearly turned out. He spent years, for example, working on a commission from the National Theatre of Scotland only to end up with a 200-page script that was quite unstageable. They described it as more of a novel than a play and, today, he doesn't even think it would have made much of a novel.

"It was a tome," laughs the Ayrshire-born playwright, who had already ditched a version inspired by Derren Brown-style magic. "I had a little piece of paper on my computer that said 'grand'. I wanted it to be a grand, national play. It turns out I can't do grand."

By the time he had got to that point, however, the fee from the NTS was in the bank. The thought of earning money from a play that wasn't even staged unsettled him. "They paid me in full and it had the opposite effect that you might think," he says. "I felt guilty that I hadn't done the work I was paid for. The guilt got to me and I went back to it. The word 'grand' came off the computer and 'pop' came on. It was not Girls Aloud pop, but Martha and the Vandellas pop. Undoubtedly pop, but really good."

Opening in March, the all-new version of the play, The Miracle Man, is "a two hour, 15 minute pop epic" about a hapless teacher, the laughing stock of his school, who is in urgent need of a miracle.

Despite the rocky journey, Maxwell himself appears to be in no such need. In 2010, his star is in the ascendant. The Miracle Man is only one of at least five plays being staged this year. Later in the spring, Grid Iron will revive his Fringe First-winning hit Decky Does A Bronco, performed in a real-life playground, for its tenth anniversary. He's also written a play, Too Fast, for the National Theatre in London, and is working on a musical for Cumbernauld Theatre called The Bookie. "It's a story that Gilbert and Sullivan would have had dramaturgical problems with – it's preposterous," says Maxwell, who set up a musicals society when he was at Stirling University.

"It's about a bookie who has been taking bets on real-life things, like betting on your daughter passing all her exams or betting on falling in love. He calls them lifestyle bets and business is booming. The dead brother of the owner has left one of these bets involving everyone in the play and the owner stays in town to make sure it doesn't pan out. The others get together to make sure it does pan out. I don't think it's ruining anything to say it pans out."

Before all that comes Promises Promises, a one-woman show starring Joanna Tope and produced by Random Accomplice for a UK tour – another commission that didn't go to plan. "They originally commissioned me to do a comedy," he says. "I sat down to write this thing that was going to be called Humbug, which I wanted to be like 1001 Arabian Nights where someone tells a story and in that story someone tells another story. But it didn't work. I spent months on it and it was just dead. They were ten B-side ideas that never congealed into a big idea."

Instead, Maxwell offered director Johnny McKnight a monologue he had written to please himself. It was a bit of a gamble as he hadn't intended anyone to see it, but McKnight loved it. "It's been relatively straightforward and it's not wildly different from that first draft," says Maxwell.

Inspired by the experience of a friend who was teaching at a school in London, Promises Promises is about a supply teacher whose class includes a six-year-old Somali girl who refuses to speak. To the teacher's horror, she learns that community leaders have decided the girl is possessed by devils and must be subjected to a traditional exorcism cure. The teacher, meanwhile, has problems of her own, having been forced to retire in disgrace from her full-time job. The monologue plays out somewhere between edge-of-your-seat thriller and dark horror.

"Although my story goes off in a gothic direction, I don't think it's anywhere near as mental as the true story," says Maxwell, who has avoided making any big statements about multiculturalism or the education system. "There will be a reasonable local authority explanation about why it happened, but I'm much more interested in the woman telling the story."

It is a change of pace for the playwright, best known for his witty coming-of-age comedies. It wasn't deliberate, says Maxwell, it's just his previous writing in this vein has tended not to be produced. "It's pretty dark," he says. "But you don't really have any control over which of your plays work and which don't. In between Our Bad Magnet, which was ten years ago, and now, there have been lots that aren't about teenage boys in Ayrshire, but those are the ones that stick. I don't think this is radically different, but it feels different from what people have seen."

If there is a link that connects Promises Promises to the wealth of Maxwell's work on show this year as well as earlier plays such as Helmet, Mancub and Melody, it is his belief in storytelling. A keen theatre-goer, he enjoys watching the artistic experiments of others, but when it comes to putting his own pen to paper, he is determined to hook the audience through the power of narrative.

"If you get someone walking on stage and saying, 'You'll not believe what's happened…' you'll have the audience," he says. 'For me, theatre is a storytelling form, rather than a sharing or a political act. You can't really help the way your work turns out and for me it is narrative, even though you don't really need a narrative in theatre for a play to work – a back-story is more important than the story very often. But somebody telling a story does work for me."

Promises Promises opens at the Tron, Glasgow, 3-6 February, then tours. The Miracle Man, Tron, 18-20 March, then on tour. Decky Does A Bronco, Too Fast and The Bookie follow later in the year

&#149 This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday on 24 January, 2010

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