Barbara Rafferty executes a perfectly judged collapse over the arm of a sofa, thus creating a cue for her fellow actors to begin a complex series of manoeuvres involving bodies and furniture in a 1970s sitting room. Gregor Fisher, expertly transforming himself into a 100-year-old woman, shuffles about, methodically eating pickles out of a jar with a fork.
The rehearsal room for National Theatre of Scotland’s forthcoming production, Yer Granny, is a showcase for some of the country’s most experienced comedy talent, as well-kent faces from Rab C Nesbitt, Chewin’ the Fat, Still Game and Only An Excuse get to grips with a play NTS associate director Graham McLaren describes as “the funniest I’ve ever read”.
The NTS is investing a great deal in Yer Granny, despite it being almost unknown in this country, and will tour it to some of the country’s biggest theatres in the next two months. However, it does have a strong pedigree. Roberto Cossa’s La Nona, written in 1977 and pitched somewhere between a kitchen-sink drama and a piece of surrealist Dario-Fo-style mayhem, is Argentina’s most performed play. Douglas Maxwell’s faithful new version shifts the action to a Scots-Italian family in Glasgow, proud owners of a fish and chip shop which has fallen on hard times. But family patriach Cameron (Jonathan Watson) has a bigger problem than that: he has the titular granny (Fisher), who is calmly and methodically eating the whole family out of house and home.
The role marks Fisher’s return to Scottish theatre for the first time in 25 years. Since Rab C Nesbitt hung up his string vest, the actor, who now lives in France, has made occasional stage appearances in shows such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but avoided plays, until Rafferty, an old friend and Rab C veteran, sent him the script for Yer Granny.
“When Barbara rang, my heart sank, I didn’t want to do a play,” he says. “The script arrived, and sat on my kitchen table for a couple of days, then I thought I’d take a look, and very strangely I got beyond page 12. That’s a big deal for me. I got to the end, and then I picked it up and read it again. And I read it a third time because it mystified me. I’m in for the adventure, the fun, the exploration, the madness of it. I’m certainly not here for the money, because they don’t pay very well in theatre!”
Three weeks into rehearsals, he says he’s still intrigued by the character of La Nona. “Usually, I play parts that never stop talking, people who have a lot of comment to make and things to do. But Granny doesn’t say very much, she’s just omnipresent, always eating, always wanting more, never, ever, ever sated. As a performer, it’s a very interesting position to find oneself in.”
Cossa’s play, he says, might be laugh-out-loud funny, but it operates on many levels. “I’m still intrigued by it. It’s a kaleidoscope: it’s funny, it’s anarchic, it’s crazy, it’s got a dark, dark underbelly. That’s interesting in the playing, and I think it will be very interesting in the watching.”
Maureen Beattie, who plays Watson’s long-suffering wife, Marie, says accepting the part was a no-brainer after workshopping the play with NTS last autumn. “From the moment I read it I thought it was a work of comedy genius. I still believe that. A play as good as this one is a gift, the main thing is not to get in the way of it.”
She, too, is interested by its hidden depths. “Noises Off is a work of comic genius, but there’s no sub-plot at all. You don’t ask yourself, ‘What’s my motivation?’, you ask, ‘Can I get round the back of the set quickly enough to come on for that entrance? How quickly can I get those sardines from this hand into that hand?’ Yer Granny has all those wonderful farcical elements, but it’s a very black comedy indeed, and becomes blacker and blacker as the play goes on, as all good black comedies do.”
Director Graham McLaren says he was attracted by the way this “austerity comedy” combines belly-laughs with political undertones. “The mix of popular form and political content is something that Scottish theatre does very well. You have plays like The Steamie and The Slab Boys, and you don’t realise how political they are because you’re having – in John McGrath’s words – a good night out. It’s only afterwards you think: ‘Oh my god, yeah, they only went to those extreme comic lengths because they had no money, they were unemployed, their benefits were cut, they had to sell everything’.
“You don’t have to scratch too hard to get to the symbolism in a piece like this, but we don’t play all that. The audience will read it in our context, post-referendum, post-general election, food banks, zero-hours contracts. The idea of a comedy about trying to feed the family just seems incredibly prescient.”
He first heard about La Nona from NTS executive producer Neil Murray, and, finding there was no English version available, enlisted Kathy Khorrami, then Vicky Featherstone’s PA, to do a literal translation. McLaren says: “I knew were on to something when I would walk past her desk in her lunch hour and she’d be sitting there laughing. When we read it, we just thought: we’ve got to do this.” He describes his team of veteran comedy actors as “dream-casting”. “I’ve got the best comic actors currently alive and working in Scotland all in one cast. It’s the funniest play I’ve ever read. If it’s not funny on stage, it will be my fault – I’m the only thing that can go wrong!”
He has chosen to set the play in 1977, the year it was written, which is also the year of the Queen’s silver jubilee and Margaret Thatcher becoming Conservative party leader. “Also it meant that I could play Bay City Rollers songs and have people in bell bottoms,” he grins.
The cast, meantime, are getting rigged out in fabulous 1970s gear. Beattie is wearing her hair in a page-boy cut and “channelling my inner Deirdre Barlow”. Watson is letting his grow – “this is the longest it’s been for about 20 years” – and working on a set of sideburns. And Fisher, of course, is getting ready to wear a dress. “I’ve got some mammaries to boot. Granny is 100 years old so there’s a gravitational thing going on, things are not looking very pert in the chest department, and we’ve come up with some broth mixture to give it some mobility. I’ll probably end up with a bad back by week three!”
They report a lot of laughter in the rehearsal room. “Usually what you find is that if people are rehearsing a tragedy there is much laughter,” says Beattie. “If you’re rehearsing a comedy everyone’s sitting around with very serious faces, working out how to make something funny. But with this play, it’s extraordinary, I’ve never laughed so much in a rehearsal room in my life. I think it’s because it’s a mixture between the very serious and black and the hysterically funny.”
Fisher thinks the mix is a particularly potent one. “I’d like to think that people will come to see this show and have great fun, they’ll laugh a lot, but maybe three days after they’ve seen it, they might still be thinking about it. I know I am. It’s unsettling, but it’s a good laugh as well. It’s like life.”
Yer Granny previews at The Beacon, Greenock, on 19 and 21 May, and opens at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, 26-30 May, then tours to Edinburgh, Inverness, Dundee and Belfast, www.nationaltheatrescotland.com