Joyce McMillan: A Play, A Pie and A Pint shifts focus

Lunchtime slot A Play, A Pie and A Pint is getting a different focus for the next 12 months as two grande dames of Scots theatre take over
A Play, A Pie and A Pints joint artistic directors, April Chamberlain and Morag Fullarton, settle into their new rolesA Play, A Pie and A Pints joint artistic directors, April Chamberlain and Morag Fullarton, settle into their new roles
A Play, A Pie and A Pints joint artistic directors, April Chamberlain and Morag Fullarton, settle into their new roles

It’s Monday lunchtime at Oran Mor on Glasgow’s Byres Road; and after the first performance of this week’s show – Tim Barrow’s historical two-hander Neither God Nor Angel – there’s a baby shower going on, in the upstairs bar. Susannah Armitage, producer of A Play, A Pie and A Pint since the death of her former boss and mentor David MacLennan in 2014, is taking a year off from her multi-stranded producing career to have a baby. And the smiles are all the broader, as the presents pile up and the wine slips down, because the board of A Play, A Pie And A Pint has made the inspired choice of appointing as joint artistic directors, for the next 12 months, two women – Morag Fullarton and April Chamberlain – whose long experience of theatre and media in Scotland, and long friendship with A Play, A Pie and A Pint’s founder MacLennan, puts them in a perfect position both to protect the astonishing theatre phenomenon MacLennan created in the decade before his death, and to develop it in new directions.

Fullarton trained as an actor in Glasgow, and became artistic director of Borderline Theatre in Ayrshire in the early 1980s, playing a key role in the now-legendary development of radical touring theatre in Scotland, and often working alongside MacLennan and David Anderson of Wildcat. She employed actors and writers like Alex Norton, Bill Paterson, John Byrne, Billy Connolly, and a young Alan Cumming. Her farewell production for Borderline – before she moved on to become a successful television writer and director, working on shows that range from Cardiac Arrest and This Life to Taggart and River City – was Robbie Coltrane’s fine solo performance of Dario Fo’s Mistero Buffo, during Glasgow’s year as European City of Culture in 1990.

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Meanwhile, April Chamberlain had come to Glasgow from London to marry her then fiance; by 1985 she had two young children and was looking around for work when an advertisement for an administrative job at Wildcat Stage Productions caught her eye, and she found herself being interviewed by MacLennan. Within months, she was Wildcat’s general manager, helping the company to open the Clyde Theatre at the old Singer factory in Clydebank. She worked with the company until the early 1990s, when she met Scottish comedy producer Colin Gilbert, and left to work first on Rab C Nesbit Productions, and later at the BBC Scotland Comedy Unit.

“So between us, you see, we have a huge range of experience and contacts across the business,” says Fullarton, “and we’re really excited at the prospect of bringing it to bear on A Play, A Pie and A Pint. Thirty-six new plays a year – it’s almost unimaginable how it all happens, and yet it does. I’ve always been a great admirer of what happens here, and of David’s vision behind it; and now we’re hoping to maintain that, and to bring some new ideas to it.”

And there’s perhaps a clue to one possible direction of travel for A Play, A Pie and A Pint, over the next 12 months, in the work Fullarton herself has directed there since 2004. There have been one or two completely straight plays; but Fullarton has also developed a hugely successful line in well-scripted, witty and thoughtful “tribute” shows, which reference beloved icons of popular culture. Her “lunchtime cut” of Casablanca, for example, became a smash hit on the Edinburgh Fringe, and toured to Paris; she has also directed hugely successful evening shows at Oran Mor reflecting on the lives of great female singers, including Patsy Cline, Doris Day, and Dolly Parton.

“Like any kind of programming, it’s about balance,” says Fullarton. “A Play, A Pie and A Pint is always, essentially, about new writing, mainly from Scotland. At the same time, we need to attract good audiences in order to make the economics of it work. So this summer, for instance, we’re not going to do the June season of Classic Cuts – which hasn’t been very popular in recent years – and instead we’ll be doing a season of mini-musicals; mine is going to be called Mack The Knife, and it’s about the sensational story of how Brecht and his associates put together the first production of The Threepenny Opera.”

Chamberlain agrees that the range and variety of the work A Play, A Pie and A Pint presents is the key to its strong relationship with its audience. “This job is really about making space for a huge range of voices,” she says. “New voices, older voices trying something new. And we also want to maintain and develop all the relationships A Play, A Pie and A Pint has built up – the collaboration with the Traverse on five shows each season, relationships with the Lemon Tree in Aberdeen, the Gaiety in Ayr, Sherman Cymru in Cardiff, Bewlay’s in Dublin, and of course, the National Theatre of Scotland, which often works with A Play, A Pie and A Pint on new international seasons.”

“It feels like a challenge, but also like great fun,” says Fullarton, as she heads off to join the party. “We’ve got two wonderful associate producers already here to work with, in Sarah McFarlane and Mhairi Robinson. And it’s absolutely great to have this job for just exactly a year. It’s long enough to achieve something, but not so long that you can’t think beyond it, and feel the connections to all the other work you’ve done, and might do in future. Which is a great feeling; and we can’t wait to get to work.”

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• Neither God Nor Angel is at Oran Mor until today, and at the Traverse, Edinburgh, 5-9 April. Prom, by Oliver Emanuel, is at the Traverse today, and at the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, next week. Ring Road by Anita Vettesse opens at Oran Mor on 4 April,

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