The show featured two fine performances from James Young and Hollyoaks star Amy Conachan; and it was the joint brain-child of writer, performer, director and campaigner Robert Softley Gale – now artistic director of Scotland’s leading company working with disabled artists, Birds of Paradise – and Johnny McKnight, wickedly witty playwright, director and star of annual Christmas pantos at Stirling and the Tron. The National Theatre of Scotland’s artistic director Jackie Wyllie loved the show and when she arrived at the NTS in 2017, one of her first thoughts was to put McKnight and Softley Gale back together again, and to invite them to create a new show in co-production with the NTS.
Which is how it comes about that – just eight months after he and McKnight first met to discuss the project – Softley Gale is to be found, on a glorious July day, whizzing in his wheelchair around the NTS’s Glasgow canal-side headquarters, preparing his latest show for its fast-approaching premiere during this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. It’s a musical called My Left/Right Foot, involving a cast of seven and a large creative team, about the efforts of an amateur theatre company to produce a stage version of Christy Brown’s 1954 autobiography My Left Foot, immortalised in the 1989 film starring Daniel Day-Lewis. The company are under pressure to tick some boxes in terms of arts and disability; and the show traces their hilarious journey through a project that starts out, at least, by making every mistake in the book when it comes to tackling disability themes.
“I think our basic idea was to take some iconic, familiar piece of popular culture that tries to deal with disability, and to do something challenging and funny with it,” says Softley Gale, who was born in Glasgow 38 years ago with severe cerebral palsy, but has worked over the years to become an eloquent performer and public speaker. “I grew up in Kirkintilloch in a family that was very involved in the local am-dram company, and I was involved too – although in those days, back in the 1990s, it was always assumed that I would be behind the scenes, doing lighting or props or directing, rather than acting.
“And it just struck me that that am-dram setting would be perfect for this story. Apart from anything else, I don’t think any professional company would even try to do My Left Foot now – after the film, it just became too closely associated with the whole business of people who aren’t disabled telling stories about disabled people for their own ends, and with narratives about disability that don’t really give a voice to disabled people at all.”
After the idea for My Left/Right Foot took shape, McKnight had to drop out of the project because of other commitments; but Softley Gale had no problem in assembling a powerful creative team to work on the show, including award-winning composer-songwriters Claire McKenzie and Scott Gilmour of Noisemaker, and Jerry Springer – The Opera lyricist Richard Thomas. The script is by Softley Gale himself, and the cast includes Louise McCarthy of The Dolls, as well as rising NTS star Dawn Sievewright, who was once a child actor in that same Kirkintilloch am-dram company.
“It’s a new experience for me to work with a company of six-able-bodied actors and one actor, Matthew Ducket, who has a disability – but I’m finding it great fun,” says Softley Gale, who is directing this show, but not appearing in it. “As for the future – well I suppose I do occasionally feel that it would be good just to work at a big theatre like the Tron or the Citizens’, and to do some shows that are not about disability at all.
“Frankly, though, I don’t feel that very often. Theatre is all about telling people’s stories, and what a privilege it is to be doing this work that no-one else is doing, telling stories from a perspective that has been ignored or sidelined so long. I suppose I’ve always been a campaigner as well as a theatre-maker, campaigning for gay rights as well as disabled people, and for a world in which disabled people are no longer denied their right to a sexuality. I’m interested in the kind of activism that changes people’s perspective – and theatre is by far the best way of doing that.”
As for the future of Birds of Paradise – one of the five companies whose three-year Creative Scotland funding cut was abruptly reversed, earlier this year – Softley Gale foresees more co-productions, and plenty of them. “It’s not that co-productions are easy,” he says. “They can be really challenging and annoying, in some ways. But the process of making a co-production with a company that is not focused on disability is just so interesting and creative – it’s the real work of trying to integrate our perspective, and our concerns, into the mainstream of theatre life.
“So of course it’s great to be working with the NTS,” says Softley Gale, starting to pilot his wheelchair back towards the rehearsal room. “But in the future, we hope there will be plenty more of this, with theatres all over Scotland; and that’s what we’ll be working on, just as soon as we get this show on the road.” n
My Left/Right Foot – The Musical at Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh, 1-27 August