A breath of fresh air for Trumpet

IT IS universally acknowledged that debut novels have limited shelf lives. So the success of Jackie Kay's award-winning Trumpet comes as a refreshing surprise. Seven years on from its first publication and 14 foreign translations later, Kay's triumph re-emerges this week as Shetland-based theatre company Skeklers adapt it for the stage.

Awarded the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1998 and shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, Trumpet was applauded by critics, launched the Edinburgh-born and Glasgow-raised poet into prose and paved the way for Why Don't You Stop Talking, a collection of short stories, and then children's novel Strawgirl in 2002. Kay confesses she received letters from readers saying they felt "understood by the book", so universal and rich were the themes of loss, love and identity that Trumpet depicted.

American jazz trumpeter Joss Moody has died. The doctor called to examine the body undoes Joss's top and finds bandages wrapped around his chest. Beneath these are breasts. After a full examination, the doctor hesitates, crosses out "male" on the death certificate and replaces it with "female".

The tale may sound unlikely, but the germ of it came from a news story Kay read in the early 1990s about Billie Tipton, a US jazz pianist who had died the previous year. Only after Tipton's death was it discovered that he was a she. Unlike Kay's character, Tipton's three former wives and adopted sons never suspected he was anything other than he appeared. When a reporter later asked one of Tipton's sons how he felt, he said: "He'll always be my daddy." Kay deftly reconfigured the tale into another story of identity and self-invention. That Kay has recently finished a screenplay adaptation for Bend It Like Beckham producer and director Gurinder Chadha is further testament to Trumpet's potential to cross genres.

Initially reluctant to revisit an old work, Kay has found her role as adviser to Skeklers Theatre Company director and adapter Grace Barnes illuminating. "Novels are about what goes on internally; you can't see that on screen or stage," says Kay, who joined Barnes and her cast for rehearsals in Shetland last week. "In adapting it, you have to paint the novel, making it less about the dialogue and more about what you can see."

The Manchester-based writer admits she felt "clueless" about where to start. Both she and Barnes were eager to stay faithful to the book, while adding a new dynamic to the original story. Having seen the theatre work in progress, however, Kay is enthused and believes that the crux of the book has not been lost in translation. "I think a lot of people were, and still are, attached to the description of grief in the novel and the fact that it is not dealt with or portrayed in a sensationalist way."

Born to a Scottish mother and a Nigerian father, Kay was adopted by a white couple at birth; the trials of a young gifted black girl adopted into Glaswegian parentage was the subject of her award-winning, semi-autobiographical book of poems, The Adoption Papers, published in 1991. It won the Saltire and Forward prizes and attracted attention as much for its young author as for its poetic verve. It was suggested, much to Kay's chagrin, by some at the time that Trumpet too might in some ways be autobiographical. "It is slightly tiresome," says Kay, smiling. "I think my standard response at the time was that my breasts were too big and they wouldn't flatten that easily!

"Having not had the usual set of circumstances growing up, people assume that everything I write is going to be about me: that's not the case. People are looking for authenticity in fiction and the border country between fact and fiction. They often want to see something real in there and want to attach what's happening to someone or something. But the imagination can be a powerful tool of authenticity too and I like to use that."

Kay is pleased that it is Skeklers Theatre Company who are staging the play. The brainchild of Edinburgh-born Barnes - who has worked with Australian Opera as well as West End impresario Sir Cameron Mackintosh - the company was established in 1999 to bring theatre and the arts to some of Shetland's most remote communities. Trumpet will be their third major production following Circles In Tides and Zander's Boat. The adaptation of Trumpet, says Barnes, is about taking the company a step further. "As a novel I think it's written in a wonderfully theatrical way. I like the idea of the musicality we can create."

Brass player Ben Deeney, in his second year at the Birmingham Conservatoire, has composed music for the stage adaptation and a trumpeter will be onstage throughout. "The thing I love about the book is that it does not have a clear linear narrative," says Barnes. "A staged version gives us the scope to present parts of the book that are told retrospectively. Jackie's depiction of the grieving process is extraordinary. Narratively it takes great leaps from a grieving widow to 25 years previously when they are just getting married, so it will be well paced throughout."

While Skeklers are resolute about offering roles to locals, the two main characters were drafted in from London. Barnes and Kay are thrilled with the results. Kay says: "It's very special having your characters come to life so visually; I'm so pleased that Joss looks like I imagined in my own head. Hopefully people that have read the book will feel the same."

A nervous cast were delighted to get the Kay seal of approval, with both Barnes and Kay admitting their heads were a little sore, having enjoyed a night of traditional Shetland drinking the night before. "It's just fantastic that Grace is giving audiences access to a theatre company of this standard; that in itself should be celebrated," says Kay. "It's very much what the old 7:84 used to do."

Now a week into their Shetland run, the audience response has been positive, says Barnes, drawing in both fans of the book and those that know nothing about it: "There's always a certain amount of trepidation, but I think the people of Shetland are very broad-minded. I didn't think the book was overtly shocking when I read it and I wanted the audience to look beyond the story of a man being a woman and see this wonderful love story at Trumpet's core."

While Barnes is looking forward to giving her theatre company further exposure when they arrive at the Citizens' Theatre in Glasgow next week, Kay is animated about the adaptation being staged in a theatre she knows well from her Glasgow youth. Barnes is adamant that while funding is not available now to take the tour further, Trumpet will have "an afterlife".

What the company do next is still open to debate. "How do you follow Jackie Kay's Trumpet?", asks Barnes, before confessing there are many more Scottish novels she would like to adapt. Kay is working on a set of short stories to be published next May. Time will tell, she says, if plans to take Trumpet to the big screen prove fruitful.

The Trumpet's tune is changing; let us hope the results remain as powerful.

Garrison Theatre, Lerwick (0159-692 114), Wednesday until October 1; Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow (0141-429 0022), October 4-8