James Ley on his new play Sally, and what happens when irony fails

James Ley’s latest play Sally tells the story of an actor in a touring production of Cabaret who suspects audiences may be misinterpreting the musical’s anti-fascist message. ‘I've witnessed in a number of shows recently, the audience not getting it,’ he tells Mark Fisher. ‘It's really chilling.’

James Ley PIC: Roccio Chacon
James Ley PIC: Roccio Chacon

It is turning out to be the summer of James Ley. First, the Traverse decided to revive its production of the playwright's Wilf for the Edinburgh Fringe. It was a comedy about a man who develops a physical infatuation with his car, an unexpected side effect of passing his driving test at the same time as splitting up with his boyfriend. Back in December when it had its debut run, The Scotsman called it "fine, filthy and brilliantly-paced".

If that play seemed raucous, then Ley's other Fringe show was positively X-rated. Staged at Summerhall where it won a Scotsman Fringe First, Ode To Joy was so rife with risqué terminology about drugs and sexual practices, it came with a crib sheet to help the audience keep up. Telling the tale of an inhibited civil servant who has a sudden hankering for wild nights at a Berlin techno club, it was ribald, vulgar and very funny. It was also surprisingly romantic.

Before the dust had settled on the 2022 festival, Ley had already turned his attention to Glasgow where his latest play, Sally, is about to kick off the autumn season of lunchtime theatre at A Play, A Pie And A Pint. After that, it tours to Edinburgh and Aberdeen. Having three openings in little more than a month was an accident of timing: Wilf was a revival, Ode To Joy was delayed by lockdown and only Sally is entirely new. Nonetheless, he has loved the heady thrill of it all.

Michael Dylan as Calvin in Wilf, by James Ley

"It's been crazy," laughs the playwright. "I don't think I would do it again, but I'm glad to have done it once. Everybody wanted to come out of lockdown fighting and it does feel like that."

Compared with the out-and-proud flamboyance of Wilf and Ode To Joy, Sally is a less outrageous prospect. It is about an actor who is enjoying tremendous acclaim for her one-woman staging of Kander and Ebb's Cabaret as it tours around the country. Audiences particularly like her adlibs. She loves being a hit, but starts to have doubts. Do her audiences understand the musical's anti-fascist message, she wonders, or are they viewing it only at face value?

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It is a good musical for Ley to have alighted on because, in the wrong hands, there is room for ambiguity. Set in a sleezy club, Cabaret contrasts the decadence of Berlin's interwar nightlife with the brutality of the Nazis as they begin their road to power. It would not take much, Ley speculates, for a production to give the wrong impression and make Hitler's followers look sympathetic. "You could do a wonderful production of Cabaret, as the Donmar did with Alan Cumming in the 1990s," says Ley. "Or you could do a terrible production of Cabaret where you don't get the message. At its heart, Cabaret is a wonderful musical, but in the wrong hands…"

This creates a dilemma at the heart of Ley's play. "The main character has suddenly found herself with an artistic voice, with some power, but then has the frustration that, even though the show's a success, it's not making change," he says. "What it's really doing is attracting more and more right-wing people and Tories who enjoy being lambasted in this way."

Ode To Joy PIC: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

When artists use irony, they rely on audiences to understand their point of view. Alf Garnett in Till Death Us Do Part is a case in point; a character created to lampoon the opinions of bigots was sometimes championed by those very same people who failed to see the joke was on them. "I've witnessed in a number of shows recently, the audience not getting it," says Ley. "I've been in theatres where homophobic jokes are supposed to be ironic and then the audience laugh at the joke in the same way as the character. It's really chilling to be in an audience like that."

The play is called Sally for more reasons than one. Directed by artistic director Jemima Levick, it has fun with the central character's identity. Her name is Sally, she plays the character in Cabaret called Sally Bowles and the part is played by actor Sally Reid. "There was the joke about blurring the lines of who she is," says Ley. "Sally is brilliant at playing this person who has been overlooked and then finds her power. It was exciting to write for someone with that level of skill."

Reid is joined on stage by Sam Stopford, as Sally’s assistant, Tyler, whose role grows in importance as the play progresses. "I really like a two-hander," says Ley. "It's about the depth of the argument you can go into. The concept doesn't dissipate."

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With a new show every Monday until the end of November, the season at A Play, A Pie And A Pint includes work by Morna Pearson, Johnny McKnight, Frances Poet and Morna Young. Several of the productions, including Sally, have runs in other Scottish cities, while Lorna Martin's Rose, about women's football, is going out on tour after a successful debut last year.

It is a level of playwright-centred activity that reminds Ley of his time with the Village Pub Theatre in Leith, which he co-founded in order to give an airing to the work of up-and-coming writers – albeit on a shoestring. "I'm really grateful for that poor-theatre sensibility," he says. "Those constraints are really good. It makes you make better artistic decisions. And because of the economy, we're all making poor theatre!"

Sally is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, from 5-10 September; the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, 13-17 September and the Traverse, Edinburgh, 20-24 September.