The Port Glasgow family who made a five star theatre hit

When Jess Thorpe and Tashi Gore put the advert in the paper, they had no idea what to expect. They knew they wanted to do a show involving different generations of women from the same family and they imagined they’d find perhaps a grandmother, a daughter and a granddaughter who’d be up for it. So the email they received came as a shock.

It was from a woman called Margaret Hendry who sent them a poem about her Port Glasgow family. It described the close-knit core of around 11 women, all direct relatives, who would meet every Thursday for a catch-up. That number rose to around 50 if she cast her net a little wider. She said she was really keen to get involved in Thorpe and Gore’s project. “Never in a million years did we think we’d find a family of 11 women,” says Gore. “We got this email out of the blue and we had to say, ‘This is the one. This is going to make something extraordinary.’”

The result of their meeting was Hand Me Down, a five-star evocation of the women’s lives, their triumphs, their disasters, their laughter, their losses and, above all, their sense of community. Starring the women themselves, it played at Glasgow’s Arches in 2010 and was one of my personal highlights of the year. These sisters, cousins, granddaughters and aunties shared stories of memories and mementos, creating an overwhelming sense of life as it is lived, the emotional value of community and the power of family bonds.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

But for Thorpe and Gore, co-directors of Glas(s) Performance and also the youth-orientated Junction 25, there was unfinished business. It was great to play at the Arches, the result of a Platform 18 commission for new directors, but Hand Me Down was a show about a specific community. Not until the women performed it on their home turf in Inverclyde did the directors feel their work would be done.

“It never felt like it was finished,” says Thorpe. “It was like them coming up to Glasgow to go to the theatre, but the show is interactive, it’s about seeing themselves and their granny on stage.”

Step forward Julie Ellen, recently appointed artistic director of the Beacon, the forthcoming home of Greenock’s Arts Guild, who recognised the importance of giving the show a second lease of life. Thanks to her support, Hand Me Down is making a welcome return for an unconventional tour that takes in Greenock (the nearest theatre to Port Glasgow), Easterhouse and Kilmarnock over the next three months.

“The dream has happened in that we’re taking the show back to the community where it was made,” says Thorpe. “They’ve got a bit older, reflected what the show means to them and are wanting to put a new energy into it. But also, it’s a different feeling because it’s for their local community. That’s what Tashi and I are most excited about. The places they talk about are places the audience will know. It starts to become much more pointed.”

Gore agrees: “Because it’s in Greenock they want to reference where each story happened; not just the story, but the street that it happened on.”

The willingness to let Hand Me Down change in this way says a lot about the attitude the directors have to their work. Their raw material is real life – whether it is the elderly Glasgow couple who formed the basis of Life Long or the teenagers who appeared with their parents in From Where I’m Standing – and they happily accept there is no such thing as a definitive performance. What they care about is not only a truthful expression of their actors’ lives – something that can change from day to day – but also an honest acknowledgement of the audience’s place in sharing their stories.

“It’s human beings in a room together and that’s what’s exciting about it,” says Thorpe. “When everybody feels stretched because of the economy and the cuts, being in a room with other people is a radical act. This is theatre as an act of community, even before you’ve said anything.”

In Hand Me Down that radicalism extends to the implicit feminism of the piece. Although it is a play rich in everyday moments rather than tub-thumping speeches, the cumulative effect of the women talking about the mothers and grandmothers who have gone before them, and remembering the things one generation has handed down to the next, is a powerful sense of female solidarity.

“It’s about the histories of women in Scotland and how often we hear about the men’s histories because they are better documented,” says Thorpe. “In Hand Me Down, we just love the female piper. When she plays the pipes for the family, the feminist in me says this is a statement.”

None of this is explained as baldly as that in the production, which affects you not through the poignancy of any one image, but through the cumulative impact of the women’s words. “One of the guiding principles is about it not being one story,” says Thorpe. “It is many narratives coming together. We think of it as a collage. We love layering things on top of each other and tracing threads through. The collective is what’s important; the fact that many people have many experiences of the same idea. Our job is not to tell an audience how to feel or what to think, but to present our truths in this tapestry. Maybe you reach more people that way because they come as active participants in the process.”

A performance about real life changes as life itself changes. The fluidity of the directors’ approach means Gore and Thorpe readily embrace the company’s fresh perspective on the material. Above all, they can’t wait to see how it plays to the home crowd. “Hand Me Down in Greenock is going to feel like a really good night out, a real family event,” says Thorpe. “And the women are over the moon about doing it.”

Hand Me Down is at the Arts Guild Theatre, Greenock, 11 February; Platform, Easterhouse, 2–3 March; and Palace Theatre, Kilmarnock, 5 May.