Why Joe Corrie is worth making song and dance about

Vicki Anderon and Paul Tinto lead the cast in the National Theatre of Scotland's production of In Time O'Strife. Picture: Eoin Carey
Vicki Anderon and Paul Tinto lead the cast in the National Theatre of Scotland's production of In Time O'Strife. Picture: Eoin Carey
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Hunger is often the best motivator to work hard, and in the case of early 20th century Fife playwright Joe Corrie it’s the main reason his reputation endures among Scottish theatremakers to this day, more than 80 years after his greatest success.

A miner in the Fife village of Bowhill (now part of the town of Cardenden) during the General Strike of 1926, Corrie would compose short dramas for the community around him, whose staging would raise funds for the soup kitchens used by striking miners and their families. When the dispute was over, he put his experiences into In Time O’ Strife, his first full-length work.

“It’s extraordinary in all kinds of ways,” says director Graham McLaren, who is reimagining this new National Theatre of Scotland production of what he confidently describes as an early draft of a truly great play to rival O’Casey or Lorca. “In terms of theatre history it’s an angry kitchen sink drama,” he says, “and we don’t think that they were invented until Look Back in Anger in the 1950s. Yet In Time O’ Strife was so popular it became an international success, and was translated and performed in countries across the world. For a bunch of miners from Bowhill that was an extraordinary thing.”

McLaren also notes that the piece was a precursor to Ena Lamont Smith’s 1947 Gorbals-set, Depression-era classic Men Should Weep, which he directed in a major NTS revival in 2011. Yet the working-class family drama of In Time O’ Strife was shunned by the Scots theatre establishment of its time, principally the Citizens’ Company’s James Bridie, and the 50 further plays Corrie produced would be local amateur productions. For this version McLaren has incorporated scenes from Corrie’s other plays, and poems which have been turned into contemporary song by members of the bands Zoey Van Goey and Strike the Colours.

The original idea to revisit Corrie’s work came at the suggestion of the playwright Peter Arnott, who wrote an essay ahead of a rehearsed reading at the NTS’s Staging the Nation event which stated that In Time O’ Strife offered him “the possibility that theatre rooted in a place and a moment could speak across time and tell something like the truth”. Noting the parallels with the miners’ strike of 1984, McLaren has been similarly affected, and hopes his version will return during the strike’s 30th anniversary next year. “We find a play like this and think, ‘it’s like The Broons but angrier,’ and are quick to dismiss it,” he says. “But when you get to the heart of the play and the language, you find great drama.”

• ‘In Time O’ Strife’ is at Pathhead Hall, Kirkcaldy, until 12 October.

Further details on www.nationaltheatrescotland.com