Oh When The Saints: Bringing St Johnstone's Scottish Cup triumph to the stage

When the actor Colin McCredie told him there hadn’t been a play about Perth in his lifetime, playwright Martin McCormick looked to the story of St Johnstone FC for inspiration. Interview by Mark Fisher

Some of the team behind Oh When The Saints, from left to right: Tom McGovern (Tommy), Beverley Mayer (Supporter Liaison Officer for St Johnstone FC and community cast member), Greer Montgomery (Wendy), Ian Flaherty (Head of Operations for St Johnstone FC), Colin McCredie (Bobby) PIC: Chris Logan
Some of the team behind Oh When The Saints, from left to right: Tom McGovern (Tommy), Beverley Mayer (Supporter Liaison Officer for St Johnstone FC and community cast member), Greer Montgomery (Wendy), Ian Flaherty (Head of Operations for St Johnstone FC), Colin McCredie (Bobby) PIC: Chris Logan

Sometimes you get so used to defeat that the possibility of victory is scary. That is the case for Bobby, a supporter of St Johnstone FC, in Oh When the Saints, a new play at Perth Theatre. Written by Martin McCormick, it is the story of a club not overly familiar with footballing triumph.

So much is that the case that when, on 17 May 2014, the team goes head to head with Dundee United, the long-term fan can't bring himself to go. As his team enjoys a two-nil win at Celtic Park, securing its first ever Scottish Cup, Bobby is elsewhere.

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"He has this existential crisis on the day," says McCormick, who based the incident on a true story. "He wakes up and he can't go to the game. Failure is so ingrained in him that he opts out. It's a working-class sense of being confined and trapped. This is a day when he will potentially experience some emotional freedom, but he can't go through with it."

Talking on Zoom from the Perthshire village of Dunning, the actor-turned-playwright draws his hand across the screen to illustrate what a graph of St Johnstone's fortunes would look like. Where the line for Manchester United is a mountainous ascent with the occasional precipitous drop, the equivalent for St Johnstone is more like a heart monitor after a cardiac arrest. "It's a flat line for 140 years," he laughs. "But in those 140 years, you find all this richness, the amazing stories about people associated with the club."

Looking for a dramatic story to tell, he realised Oh When The Saints would have to be a different sort of play to the major-league celebrations in shows such as The Celtic Story. The generations of fans who have stayed loyal to St Johnstone since its first game in 1885 cannot have been hooked on the thrill of winning. What, then, does motivate them?

"The club is a community asset," he says. "It is integral to the people that live here. People who ordinarily wouldn't be able to emote or express any vulnerability talk about the team – and talk about that day – and it makes them crumble. That's what makes a community. I'd be interested to know how many people attend a St Johnstone game for a sense of belonging rather than for the football."

The playwright, a Celtic fan who moved to Perthshire too late to enjoy St Johnstone's cup victory, wanted to write a play that would appeal to insiders and outsiders alike. Oh When The Saints is not just for fitba initiates, even though rehearsals for the non-professional members of the cast have had to be scheduled to avoid clashes with the team's fixtures.

"I'm an ardent football supporter but I wanted to make a play that would entice not only a fan but also someone who didn't know anything about the club," he says. "That meant putting human drama and universal themes at the heart of it, trying to make it an engaging narrative and not too football-heavy, which is the danger of some productions."

The presence of the community cast, in addition to the professional actors, help in this aim. "They give the play this genuine sense of authenticity because they have a voice," he says. "They're like a Greek chorus."

McCormick is co-directing the show with Lu Kemp, who has brought together a cast of Perth-born actors including Colin McCredie, Tom McGovern and Lorna Craig. His recent experience directing the much-praised annual panto at the Howden Park Centre has influenced the show's direct-to-the-audience exuberance, not least because the old firm teams appear as Ugly Sisters. "I want to embrace the theatricality of it and explain it through humour," he says.

He feels the city has been underserved when it comes to locally based plays and is delighted to correct the balance. "Dundee Rep has put on Balgay Hill, the Timex play [On The Line] and The Mill Lavvies – all celebrating the city," he says. "It saddened me when Colin McCredie, who has had an association with Perth Rep for 40 years, told me there has never been a play about Perth in his lifetime."

Oh When The Saints is just the first of a series of home-and-away fixtures for McCormick, whose debut Squash won the Best New Play award in the 2015 Critics' Awards For Theatre In Scotland. In September, Pitlochry Festival Theatre will premiere The Maggie Wall in its new studio. It is inspired by a mysterious stone monument up the road from his house, supposedly the grave of a woman tried and executed in the 18th century for witchcraft.

"The monument is maintained but no one knows who maintains it," he says. "I discovered there's no record of anyone called Maggie Wall being tried or indeed burnt. There's a real darkness to it. When Sarah Everard was murdered, I thought, 'My God, ever since then, when women were being persecuted, tried and executed as witches, we haven't moved on.' I wanted to give this woman, if she ever existed, a voice."

After that, he will be back on stage in Clunk, his own one-man play for younger audiences, on a tour by Visible Fictions. "It's about a boy sitting in class when something falls out of his ear and makes the noise, 'Clunk!'" he says. "It inadvertently releases all these secrets in his life."

Oh When The Saints is at Perth Theatre from 2–18 June; The Maggie Wall is at Pitlochry Festival Theatre from 9–29 September; Clunk is on tour in the autumn