The team behind new musical drama Bingo!, about a group of women hoping their numbers come up, are aiming to hit the jackpot themselves
Bring together Grid Iron Theatre, Edinburgh’s brilliant specialists in site-specific performance, and Stellar Quines, Scotland’s top theatre company led by and focused on women, and what might you expect them to come up with? A show with a strong awareness of the spaces in which human beings live out the drama of their lives, certainly; and one, maybe, which looks at a place where women gather, and men – with a few exceptions – do not.
So it’s perhaps not surprising that when audiences roll up at the Assembly Hall in Edinburgh next week for the International Women’s Day premiere of this spring’s Grid Iron-Stellar Quines co-production, they will find themselves transported to a bingo hall somewhere in Scotland, where five women and one bloke – played by Tron panto star Darren Brownlie – are trying their luck with the numbers.
Daniella, played by the brilliant Louise McCarthy of Scot Squad and The Dolls, has done something very bad indeed, and needs a big win to get her out of trouble; her mother Mary (Wendy Seager) senses something is up. And with a fistful of River City and Still Game stars also gathered around the table – Barbara Rafferty, Jane McCarry and Jo Freer – this comedy musical drama about working-class women in Scotland, and their struggle to make ends meet in austere times, seems set to join Tony Roper’s legendary The Steamie as a good-night-out chronicle of the lives of Scottish women, more than 30 years on.
“I honestly never thought about The Steamie at first,” says Stellar Quines artistic director Jemima Levick, who began to imagine a show about bingo almost five years ago, when she was joint artistic director of Dundee Rep. “The whole Dundee Rep team used to set up a kitty and go out to the bingo sometimes, and I found it fascinating. For a start, most of the places where bingo happens are big old cinemas, and these spaces are absolutely vast, and sometimes very beautiful. The seats just go on for miles, full of women all sitting very quietly, eyes down, focused on the game. People chat between games, of course, but it’s not about a rowdy night out; it’s about tea and sandwiches – people often bring their own – and a bit of chat, and the game.
“And the more I spoke to people there, the more I realised that for some women, it’s definitely part of their financial plan. I met one woman who was there to win her holiday spending money, pure and simple. She won £400 – and without that, she would have had a much lesser holiday.”
It wasn’t, though, until the show’s writers Johnny McKnight and Anita Vettesse produced a first draft that Levick realised she was tapping
into a great tradition of Scottish musical theatre about women’s lives. By 2016, Levick had moved from Dundee to Stellar Quines, combining with Grid Iron to create the bingo show; and she and brilliant Grid Iron producer Jude Doherty agreed that McKnight and Vettesse would make a fine writing team for this project.
McKnight is already a legend as writer, director and star of hilarious satirical pantomimes at the MacRobert and the Tron, and for the comic and dramatic work of his own company, Random Accomplice; he also has a huge interest in, and grasp of, the mechanics of musical theatre.
“I just knew Johnny had the right spirit for this show,” says Levick. “His writing is so gallus, and full of a brilliant sense of working-class contemporary culture. But we also wanted to involve a woman writer; and I read Anita Vettesse’s terrific play Ringroad, which is so full of heart and emotional subtlety. I knew she and Johnny were friends and I just thought, let’s ask them to write it together.”
Vettesse is a well-known actress as well as a successful writer, and she and McKnight have worked together often, not least on McKnight’s beautiful 2014 play A Perfect Stroke. “I’ve never actually written jointly with another writer before,” says McKnight. “But Anita and I have always been chums, always read each other’s scripts and all that. And working with her on this has just been terrific.
“What we did was we got together to create a storyline and characters, then went away and wrote chunks of the script separately, and then came together again to exchange notes and sort out a final version. We wrote the script and the lyrics, and then the composer Alan Penman came in to create the music. And now, to cap it all, we’ve absolutely got the perfect cast we dreamed of, when we were writing the show – every single one of them.”
For Doherty, next week’s premiere marks the culmination of five years’ work, supported by Creative Scotland, by the Foyle Foundation, and by Assembly Theatre, who are hosting the show’s premiere run in Edinburgh; and she is quietly hopeful that Bingo! could have a future far beyond this first short tour.
“We decided quite early on that it wasn’t going to be possible to do this show in actual working bingo halls,” says Doherty. “It would have meant staging performances at a time of night that might work on the Edinburgh Fringe, but nowhere else. And then when we saw the script, it just confirmed to me that this really is a musical, and should play in theatres, as The Steamie has always done.
“So we’re heading off from the Assembly Hall to the MacRobert, then Ayr Gaiety, the Brunton at Musselburgh, the Tron and Eden Court. And I can think of many other theatres in Scotland where I’d love to see this show playing, as soon as possible. To be honest, I think it’s an absolute corker. So let’s hope audiences like it, too; and then see where it takes us.” n
Bingo! is at the Assembly Hall, Edinburgh, 6-17 March, and on tour until 21 April, www.stellarquines.com; www.gridiron.org.uk