Mesothelioma – for those lucky enough never to have encountered it – is a particularly severe form of lung cancer, and invariably fatal. It kills seven people a day in the UK alone; and 80 per cent of those deaths are known to be related to exposure to fibres of asbestos, the insulating and fireproofing material that was widely used in construction and other industries for over a century, from the 1850s onwards. A final complete ban on the import and use of asbestos became law in the UK in 1999; but because mesothelioma can take anything between 20 and 50 years to develop, cases are still being diagnosed every day, with men who worked in construction – and related trades like shipbuilding – particularly likely to be affected.
Like most of us, the Glasgow-based playwright Frances Poet knew the outlines of this story; mesothelioma has claimed some high-profile victims, including the actor Steve McQueen, who died aged 50, in 1980 believing that his exposure to asbestos had begun during his US military service. What jolted her into beginning to imagine a play about it, though, was an encounter after her daughter’s music class with a woman who told her, over coffee, that she had recently lost both her parents to mesothelioma, just six months apart. Her father had spent three days working in the shipyards as an apprentice draughtsman, and that had been enough to seal his fate.
What Poet hadn’t realised, though, was that the families of men who worked with asbestos were also at risk of the disease; the women who washed their overalls, the children who ran to meet their dads when they arrived home covered in dust. And it was out of that realisation, four years ago, that Poet’s new play Fibres was born. It’s the story of a Glasgow couple, Jack and Beanie, who pay a heavy price for his time in the shipyards decades earlier; and of the energy and humour they bring to this toughest of all challenges.
Fibres is co-produced by Scotland’s female-led theatre company Stellar Quines and the Citizens’ Theatre, as part of this year’s Citizens’ Women season. It will tour around many venues – in Govan, Greenock, Paisley and elsewhere – that lie close to the west of Scottish communities most profoundly affected by asbestos-related disease.
“There is a lot of anger in the play, of course,” says Poet. “The first report linking asbestos exposure to lung disease was published as early as 1898; yet for a century after that, companies went on using it in the construction trades.
“Nor was any effort made to allow men to leave their dirty overalls at work, and not take the fibres home to their families. The whole thing was despicable, really, a complete breach of the moral contract between employers and employees, and it’s us, the taxpayers, who are still having to foot most of the bill, mainly via the NHS.
“In making the story into a play, though, I really felt the need to make it something more than an angry rant; I wanted to write a real human story, with love and laughter as well as tragedy – a story audiences would want to engage with. Sometimes, when you just hit an audience with the sheer pain of a situation, it actually makes them switch off, and stop empathising; I wanted to avoid that. So what I’ve written is partly the story of a marriage, which I found completely fascinating – Beanie jokes that she didn’t know this was what Jack meant, when he said, ‘What’s mine is yours’ – and partly a romantic comedy about Beanie and Jack’s daughter; her reaction to her parents’ experience, and her own need to open up to life again, despite her grief.”
In bringing the story of Fibres to life, Poet has had strong support from the Citizens’ Theatre, and from Stellar Quines director Jemima Levick, who will direct the show.
She also has something of a dream cast in Jonathan Watson as Jack, and Maureen Carr as Beanie, with support from Suzanne Magowan and Ali Craig. Watson is much loved by audiences across Scotland for his comedy television roles, ranging from Only An Excuse to Two Doors Down, while Maureen Carr has the same kind of recognition from appearances in Still Game and River City. Poet knows they will be able to make an instant bond with audiences, that will help carry them through both the comedy and the tragedy of the story.
“Jemima says I shouldn’t call this my Health & Safety play,” says Poet, “but it is good to remember that Health & Safety rules are there for a reason, and that they can save lives, not just in the moment, but over decades. The truth is that most contractors knew of these dangers, throughout the 20th century. They just didn’t tell the workers and I have so much admiration for the campaigners at Clydeside Action on Asbestos – now just Action on Asbestos – who are supporting this show, and have done so much to ensure that we at least have a compensation scheme, here in Scotland.
“They used to think that the number of mesothelioma cases would peak around 2020, after the material was banned. But because the disease can take so long to develop – and because there are still hazards around demolition and repairs from the ‘asbestos century’ – they now think it may be more like 2040.
“So this is a legacy that will be with us for decades to come; and if this play can help raise awareness about it, while also giving audiences a good night out, and maybe a chance to share their own stories afterwards – then I’ll be delighted, and I’ll feel it’s a job well done.” Joyce McMillan
Fibres is on tour until 2 November, with dates at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, 29-30 October.