Mike Cullen settles old debts with The Collection

“AS A WRITER I tend to choose subjects that get my blood boiling,” says Mike Cullen, with a note of relish in his voice.

The cast of Rapture Theatre's version of The Collection. Picture: Contributed
The cast of Rapture Theatre's version of The Collection. Picture: Contributed

As its name suggests, Cullen’s second play The Collection, written in 1995, is about what those in the trade now prefer to call “debt recovery”, and in touring theatre company Rapture, who are restaging it this autumn, it has found a good home.

With their recent shows including new productions of Gregory Burke’s Gagarin Way and Hector MacMillan’s The Sash, director Michael Emans and his company have not shied away from the rich bloodline of political and socially responsive work coursing through Scottish theatre – a tradition The Collection draws on with subject matter which might be more timely now than it’s ever been.

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“The play stems from my own experience when I was unemployed back in the ’80s, before I started writing anything,” says Cullen, 52, who left school at 16 to work down the coal pit in his native Tranent and faced years of unemployment when he left the job, disillusioned.

“I had a loan at the time and I was going through financial difficulties, so I experienced personally the psychologically brutal way these people operate when you start to get behind on your payments and they’re looking to collect from you. Once I became a writer I thought back to that and realised there might be something in it.”

In his play, the lead character Lawson is an outstanding debt collector who reaches a moment of epiphany when one of his clients commits suicide and he is forced to re-evaluate his life to discover why she did it and whether he was responsible.

“But unfortunately it’s too late,” says Cullen, “because he’s surrounded by people who are out to exploit him, including punters and work colleagues. It’s about how there’s no place in the cut-throat world for that kind of man, someone who too late in life finds his humanity and just by finding it turns himself into a victim.”

The Rapture production’s excellent four-handed cast features Jimmy Chisholm, Tam Dean Burn, David Tarkenter and Pauline Turner as the late client, bringing to life a story which Cullen describes as part thriller, part comedy, and even more relevant today than it was when he wrote it.

“You have these companies who are lending money at extortionate rates that people can’t possibly afford, so they’re ending up in extreme debt,” he says. “Everyone has this vision of money lending being illegal loan sharks, but in the play I’m contending that this distinction couldn’t and shouldn’t be made.”

The memory of poverty has clearly stayed with him, because after a decade and a half out of theatre, one of two new plays he’s writing tackles the same subject. We can expect, he says, a “big, classical, King-Lear-esque tragedy set in a world of underground money lenders.”
• The Collection is at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, tonight until Saturday, then touring until 10 October.