Salamander: The Fringe show made more relevant by Edinburgh's new sex industry clampdown

When an all-female theatre company chose an unsolved murder in Edinburgh nearly 40 years ago for its next production, it had no idea how relevant the play was about to become.

Murder victim Sheila Anderson, whose body was discovered at Gypsy Brae in Edinburgh in 1983.
Murder victim Sheila Anderson, whose body was discovered at Gypsy Brae in Edinburgh in 1983.

The death of Sheila Anderson in 1983 was widely seen as the catalyst for changing the way the sex industry in the city was policed.

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But a new stage play exploring the impact the case had on the relationship between the police and women working the streets will be launched against a backdrop of mounting concern for the safety of the current generation of sex workers in the city.

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    Former Lothian and Borders Police deputy chief constable Tom Wood has collaborated on the new play Salamander.

    Salamander will get an Edinburgh Festival Fringe premiere at Riddle's Court, a Royal Mile venue virtually on the doorstep of the headquarters of the city council, which recently voted to completely outlaw strip clubs by April of next year.

    The play will explore how the murder of Sheila - who was seen by police on the streets Leith just 30 minutes before her body was found discarded on the beach front at Granton - led to a rethink over how to deal with sex workers and the creation of a tolerance zone to try to ensure their safety.

    The play has been in development for the last six months since the case was featured on an American true crime podcast.

    Tom Wood, a former Lothian and Borders Police deputy chief constable, recalled how the sex industry in Leith changed beyond all recognition within months due to a rising tide of heroin addiction in Edinburgh.

    The new play Salamander will be premiered at this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

    He told the podcast: “Street​-​wise​,​ experienced​ street women ​had been ​replaced by young, part-time, reckless drug users. Punters had also changed​. Instead of ​the sailors of ​the port​,​ now people came from far and wide, as far as 100 miles away​. M​any ​were ​serious​ criminals, ​selling drugs and looking to pimp the girls​."

    Mhairi McCall, co-writer of Salamander with Cal Ferguson, said: “Sheila was a fairly normal mum-of-two living in Muirhouse.

    “She tried heroin at a house party with no concept of how dangerous or addictive it was.

    “But from then on it just completely destroyed her life. She was a prime example of someone who wouldn’t normally have become a sex worker or entered the sex industry but had to do so to fund her addiction. Working in the Co-op wasn’t going to cut it.

    The all-women Edinburgh-based theatre group Pretty Knickers Productions is launching the new play Salamander at this year's Fringe.

    “Her murder was a real eye-opener for the police. A lot of under-age women were becoming addicts and taking to the streets a lot younger than they had been before.

    “The police just weren’t aware of how bad the situation was until then. They had to look at how to keep the streets safe but also keep the women safe and protect everyone’s best interests.

    "The discretionary zone was established after that. The police told the women that if they stuck by certain rules they would essentially be able to do their work and they would keep an eye on them.”

    The play was several months into development when the city council sparked anger and concern over the safety of sex workers by signalling a shutdown of strip clubs. Legal action has been threatened amid claims the policy would effectively discriminate against women.

    Mhairi McCall has written the new play Salamander with Cal Ferguson.

    McCall says: “One of the things that drew us to the story of Sheila Anderson was that there was a lot of genuine positive change that came from the case. It’s what makes it so different from other cold cases.

    “This all happened 40 years ago, but it does feel there was a more open-minded view compared to what seems to be happening now with the strip clubs in Edinburgh in jeopardy.

    “It is just pushing the sex industry underground, which I just don’t agree with, as it will be really counter-productive for women’s safety.

    “As a company, we’re all about women’s stories and women’s voices.

    “When the stuff about strip clubs appeared in the press it felt really important for us to be doing the play now, especially as it feels as if we’re moving backwards in a lot of ways.”

    Salamander focuses on the aftermath of the murder and attempts by the police force to forge better links with Leith’s street workers, via a newly-created “prostitute liaison officer”.

    The Sheila Anderson murder scene at Gypsy Brae in Edinburgh.

    The two key collaborators on the play have been Wood himself and Pat Ellis, the first officer to take on the new role after the murder.

    McCall adds: “We were really interested in the relationship between Pat and the women, what that would look like, and how she would try to relate to them.

    “We started brainstorming a plot for the play and decided to get in touch with Tom Wood, who was completely invaluable to our research.

    “We just tried to soak up everything he told us and then broached the subject of speaking to Pat.

    “We were already writing that character for the play before he met her. She was really helpful to us in fleshing out the characters of the women, but also the tone of the play.”

    A key element of Salamander will be the inclusion of poetry in the script, a tribute to one of Sheila’s own interests.

    McCall, who is a poet as well as a playwright, says: “Spoken word poetry is used as a tool to understand the deeper story with some of the women, show the heart of the women and the kind of things they wouldn’t discuss with a room full of people.

    “Of course there are elements of tragedy in the play and it has a very sombre starting point, but there is a lot of joy and dark comedy as well. We didn’t want to portray these women as victims in a dour situation.

    “We wanted to celebrate them for the fighters they were and the survivors that they were, and the camaraderie between them all. Pat and Tom really supported that and told us that was exactly like it was.”

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