So Kill Johnny Glendenning promises to be “an entertaining evening out that has no mention of currency union”.
Daniel Jackson is one of Scottish theatre’s rising stars. In his mid thirties, with a trilogy of plays for Borderline and a Fringe First under his belt, a new play on the Lyceum stage is a further confirmation of how highly he is regarded.
Hunched in the corner of a café in Glasgow, Jackson is doing a good job of being inconspicuous. He admits he has no liking for interviews. In conversation, he veers wildly from cockiness to earnest self-deprecation. We get through the best part of an hour without saying much at all about Kill Johnny Glendenning which is, he says, the way he prefers it. “I’m still hoping for a late burst of inspiration,” he adds, grimacing.
In all probability, he doesn’t need to worry. Lyceum artistic director Mark Thomson commissioned the play on the strength of its first third. Described as a Glasgow gangland comedy “of fatal errors”, it tells the story of two crime lords on a collision course at a remote Ayrshire farmhouse, with the farmer, his bedridden mother, a couple of thugs and a tabloid journalist in tow.
Jackson is unusual among the rising stars of Scottish playwriting in wanting to create popular entertainment for big stages – among his influences he lists Liz Lochhead’s plays, Bill Forsyth’s movies and the 1930s Broadway comedies of Moss Hart and George S Kaufman. But that doesn’t mean that Kill Johnny Glendenning is without a serious edge.
“Scottish people and certain strands of the Scottish media are a bit guilty of glamorising gangsters and criminals, and also imposing a sort of Hollywood narrative on them,” he says. “I read a lot of books about these guys and they all have ridiculous nicknames, quite often given to them by tabloid journalists. My ambition – and I would be the first to say I’ve not really managed to pull it off yet, but hopefully there’s still time – is to have my cake and eat it. To be able to do one of these muscular, fun, bloody romps, while at the same time drawing back the veil and asking people why we enjoy that stuff so much.”
He started writing Kill Johnny Glendenning because he “wanted to write something I suspected nobody would commission me to write”. Having made his name with “soppy rom-coms” such as his Fringe First winning My Romantic History, he wanted to pen a “muscular, masculine” play inspired by his heroes, Martin McDonagh and David Mamet.
At the same time, he is in no doubt that the play is a comedy. “It’s highly stylised. Although I did more research for this than anything I’ve done before, I’m not attempting to portray that world accurately in any way. It has the same relationship to real-life events as a Quentin Tarantino film – not that I’m saying it has anything in common quality-wise with a Quentin Tarantino film.”
The way Jackson tells it, he became a playwright by accident: “I wasn’t the kind of person who spent their childhood with a notepad writing stuff.” His first writing job was the Glasgow Fabulous comic strip for The List, while working in a series of jobs around theatres in Glasgow. It was while he was an usher at the Tron in his early twenties that he started to think about writing for the theatre. “I had this creeping thought that the bar was not very high in Scotland at that time. I thought I could probably write a three-star play.”
He dashed off ten pages of his first play, The Wall, for a competition run by the Scottish Playwrights Studio, floating easily to the top of 169 entries and earning, on the strength of it, a mentorship with John Tiffany, a commission from NTS (at that time he was the youngest writer to receive one) and a residency at the Royal Court in London. One of the competition judges, Liz Lochhead, wrote him a long, hand-written letter of support and went on to direct his play Matinee Idol for A Play, A Pie and A Pint at Oran Mor.
“If this one thing had not happened I would not be doing this now,” he says. “After I got that letter from Liz Lochhead, I was so enthused that I wrote the whole first draft of the play in two days.” The Wall, a comedy about teenagers in Jackson’s home town of Stewarton in Ayrshire, was eventually staged by Borderline, the theatre company for which Jackson’s father, Eddie Jackson, was long-standing producer.
“My dad was itching to put it on, but at the same time was rightly wary of accusations of nepotism. When Gregory Thomson, who was then artistic director of the Tron, decided he was interested in co-producing, I think that gave my dad the confidence that there’s a certain legitimacy to it.” The Wall earned three CATS nominations, and Borderline went on to produce the remaining plays in the trilogy, The Ducky and The Chooky Brae.
My Romantic History, a comedy with its finger on the pulse of twentysomething relationships, developed with the assistance of director Lyndsey Turner (recent winner of an Olivier award), was a hit at the Fringe in 2010 and continues to be produced all over the world. A film adaptation is also under way.
Recently, Jackson has been broadening his range, with a Sergeant Bilko-esque adaptation of Beaumarchais’ The Marriage Of Figaro for the Lyceum, and an episode of Channel 4’s student comedy-drama Fresh Meat, which gave him an opportunity to work with his television writing idols, Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong. “I had thought maybe I would be allowed to write crap TV eventually, but it never entered my head that I would be able to write a TV show that I actually loved. I was going home every day after the group-writing with sore cheeks from laughing so much.”
What will the future contain? More television? More plays? Jackson says he has an idea or two up his sleeve, and two screenplays in the pipeline. “But, ideally, I’d like to have one big success, earn a load of money and never have to write another word for as long as I live!” At this rate, he might just get his wish. n
• Kill Johnny Glendenning is at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, 17 September until 11 October, www.lyceum.org.uk