Gabriel Quigley on adapting Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means for the stage: ‘My God, can she write a line!’

In adapting Muriel Spark’s novel about an all-female London boarding house, Gabriel Quigley has tried to home in on the humour, she tells Mark Fisher

In January 2018, the Edinburgh International Book Festival put on a celebration of Muriel Spark. Taking place in the Usher Hall on the eve of the centenary of the novelist’s birth, it included a rehearsed reading of Doctors Of Philosophy, Spark’s only play. Among the actors was Gabriel Quigley who turned out to have a formidable knowledge of the Edinburgh author. “You really know your Spark,” said director David Greig, impressed.

You do not have to talk to Quigley for long to see why. She raves about The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, of course, but her conversation encompasses everything from Spark’s short stories to her autobiography and her 1990 novel Symposium. As a student, she studied Spark as part of her course at the University of Glasgow and as an actor, appeared in Laurie Sansom’s adaptation of The Driver’s Seat for the National Theatre of Scotland. Her passion is infectious.

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“I feel like I know her well,” says Quigley. “She is a stylist and a true modernist, but she is a realist about life – and the surreality and unexpectedness of life. That’s where the great truth in her writing comes from.”

No wonder Greig, who is artistic director of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum, sounded her out about adapting one of Spark’s novels for the stage. They batted ideas back and forth until alighting on The Girls Of Slender Means, the story of a group of young women making ends meet in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.

“It’s one of her sweeter novels,” says Quigley. “It will always have her bite, and there is tremendous darkness in it, but she is kinder to these girls than she is to the Brodie girls. It will be a fun evening as well as dealing with the big questions of life Muriel likes to deal with.”

On screen, Quigley is familiar from All Creatures Great And Small, Chewin’ The Fat and four seasons of The Karen Dunbar Show. Her appearances at the Lyceum include Anthony Neilson’s Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, Des Dillon’s Six Black Candles and David Greig’s San Diego. Her roles in new plays at Glasgow’s Tron and Edinburgh’s Traverse have been many.

Until now, she has not been widely known as a writer, although she and her fellow actor Victoria Liddelle have collaborated on several scripts, including Ray City Rollers, a 30-minute sitcom pilot for BBC Radio Scotland. Her profile as a playwright is about to change, however. Not long after The Girls Of Slender Means, Quigley will be back with the opening play in Perth Theatre’s autumn season, which will recall the time in 1964 when The Beatles had a holiday on the banks of Loch Earn.

Gabriel QuigleyGabriel Quigley
Gabriel Quigley

“I was always employed for acting abilities but also for being good on text,” says Quigley, who studied at university alongside director John Tiffany and playwright Nicola McCartney. “Actors who are good on text will be constructive for the writer and make helpful suggestions. You just do it as part of your job and I know the nuts and bolts of how a play works.”

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Transforming the words of Muriel Spark into a script was a task of head-spinning possibility. “Muriel is a poet, so the book is sparse and open to interpretation,” she says. “It is so distilled. Even a line from her can give you an entire scene. That’s how rich the writing is.”

Quigley’s approach has been to catch the spirit of The Girls Of Slender Means rather than follow Spark too literally. “She would lend herself to the avant garde if you were strictly sticking to how she has constructed the novel, but that would be a tough ask for an audience,” she says. “I found I could unlock the book and unlock Muriel by watching documentaries on 20th-century modern art, because her progression is exactly the same. I think the surrealists are in this book.”

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Rather than take that route, she took inspiration from Spark’s complete canon, observing the repeating themes, such as the characters who work in publishing in Loitering With Intent (1981) and A Far Cry From Kensington (1989). “The adaptation has to be in the spirit,” she says. “It’s about taking a description and exploding it into drama, turning the narration into dialogue. In the book, you don’t get very much about the girls, for example, so you’ve got to flesh them out for the audience to engage and care about them.”

Directed by Roxana Silbert, whose career has taken her to Paines Plough, Hampstead and the RSC since her days at Edinburgh’s Traverse, it is about the residents of a boarding house for the “Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London.”

There is romance and glamour, but also the lingering worry of poverty and peril. We see things from the perspective of Jane Wright (played by Molly Vevers), a journalist looking back to 1945 as she researches a story in 1963, when the novel was published. As well as showing the stresses of the young women’s lives, Quigley is keen to bring out the humour.

“I really wanted to home in on Muriel’s humour,” says Quigley, always quick to laugh. “My God, can she write a line! The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie is all lines – totally memorable. The funniest bits of the script are direct lifts of exchanges in the book. She has such a clever, satirical eye.”

The Girls Of Slender Means is at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, from 13 April until 4 May.