Mid-September, 2012; 10pm on a Friday night on the outskirts of Dundee. What could be a better set-up for enjoying a bit of outdoor theatre? I’m cold (though I’ve been given a space blanket to keep myself warm and a torch with which to further the illusion of heat), I’m sober (it’s me that’s got to drive the car back tonight from where it’s parked about half a mile away: yes, it’s a strangely proportioned drive-in theatre this), but, the important thing is, I’m with the right people: I’m happy.

I’m part of an audience that’s sitting on benches facing south over the Tay estuary. That’s the light of Newport on the other side of the Tay that can be seen beyond Alex. Alexander Storey Gordon is the artist who’s responsible for tonight’s entertainment. He made the film which will be playing on the deliberately distant screen. He wrote the half-hour script which the four actors will shortly be performing. And he’s organised dancers to cavort between audience, actors and screen. In the press release that dropped into my inbox, he claims that he’s playing on the history of the city outskirts, that the work ‘establishes itself in the hinterland between complex histories... exploring outlying municipal spaces as laboratories where people can experiment with different modes of experience, presentation and consumption’. Sounds right up my street. He himself is going to be jogging throughout the performance, at least I think that’s the idea. He’s just waiting for a few more people to turn up. The rumour is that Alex is unaccustomedly tense tonight. Well, he is only human and this is the second of only two performances, so he has a right to be staring into the night with a mind full of foreboding.


The four actors seem relaxed enough. I’ve already spoken to Kate and she is as joyful tonight as she invariably is around people. She got chatting with Alex at an event organised by DAIR (Dundee Artists In Residence), who, on the basis of a piece of paper that contained a scribbled message on one side and a snippet of a dream on the other, asked Kate if she wanted to be involved in his play, which on one level is about family tensions. For the first run through of the script in Glasgow, only Gabriel of her fellow actors turned up. (Kate’s on the left in the photo below, Gabriel is second from the right). Kate had a good laugh that time, and she got the feeling she was going to enjoy her first acting experience. And when Catherine (on the right) and Mirren (next to Kate) joined in the rehearsals, the group dynamic just got better and better. Kate returned from a weekend’s rehearsing in Glasgow saying she’d had a
marvellous time. She couldn’t remember her lines as yet, but she could remember all four of them playing their parts Kenneth Williams-style during one read through.

4 (Catherine/Kenneth, blowing her nose): “Oh-h-h-h, you are a weird fish, what if I were to broil you and eat you, see how far you’d go.”

1 (MIrren/Kenneth, turning to Kate): “I’d feed THOUS-ands.”


No doubt, part of the reason the cast adopted the ‘one-way-I-can-get-through-this-is-by-pretending-I’m-Kenneth-Williams’ strategy was because the script is intentionally obtuse. Reading it through, with the best will in the world, it seemed to give little away. On request, Alex then produced a sheet giving some background to each of the characters, which helped.

Characters 2, 3 and 4 all pick on character 1 (that’s Mirren, second from left). Behind this, Kate gathers, is the autobiographical perspective that Alexander has felt ‘got at’ in the past by his family. Of course, that oversimplifies things crassly, and I recall Kate saying that all the roles are really Alex. But in any case, I’m ready for Mirren (a delightful creature according to Kate; cynical and bourgeois according to Kate’s character) to get quite a battering once the play starts.

Funnily enough, that all-against-one motif is the complete opposite to what’s going on in the audience. I am sitting beside Annette, who has come up from Yorkshire today, first, to see an exhibition about weaving at The Dovecot Gallery, Edinburgh; second, to see her good friend Kate in this play. She and I are sitting beside Jenifer and Tom, our friends from Alyth, who have bundled their only daughter onto a plane bound for Saudi Arabia and hurried over from Glasgow Airport in order to join us for the play... Why are we all here? To support Kate in her art enterprise, of course.

And it’s not just us. On my other side is Deirdre, who is also on the MFA course, though she doesn’t join officially until January, having done three months of the course in a previous year. She’s come along tonight, with her son, Euan, to support Kate. Tracy Mackenna, the professor who runs the MFA, is also sitting on a bench, with her son, Erasmus, and daughter, Esméemilja. What a lot of support for Kate! And yet all she can do is, along with the other two, take it out on number 1. It sounds as if they want to spike her career as an actress. I feel sorry for the lass.

But I’m jumping the gun. I know the script from playing the role of Kate’s prompt for several evenings in the last fortnight. In other words I’ve been reading aloud the lines before each of Kate’s lines, as she’s attempted to remember - without really trying to - the allusive, difficult-to-pin-down words that Alex has written for her.

We can’t start yet because of technical difficulties with the film. Twice the dancers have started off, along with jogging Alex, only to have to stop because the film hasn’t started. So we just have to be patient. I’m fine with that, because there is something I need to clarify. A dancer’s arm has just marked out the course of the rail bridge over the Tay, and of course that can’t happen without evoking William McGonagall’s poems about the Tay. His most famous poem is ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’. But a new bridge was built along the same course as the old, and, give McGonagall his due, he paid tribute to it in ‘An Address to the New Tay Bridge’. I don’t know it by heart, but nor do I go anywhere without a volume of McGonagall in my coat pocket. So here goes, with a little help from the torch:


“Beautiful new bridge of the silvery Tay,
With your strong brick piers and buttresses in so grand array;
And your thirteen central girders, which seems to my eye
Strong enough all windy storms to defy.
And as I gaze upon thee my heart feels gay,
Because thou art the greatest railway bridge of the present day;
And can be seen for miles away,
From north, south, east or west, of the Tay,
On a beautiful and clear sunshiny day,
And ought to make the hearts of the “Mars” boys feel gay;
Because thine equal no where can be seen,
Only near by Dundee and the bonnie Magdalen Green.”

Now, it’s Magdalen Green that interests me, in part because each of the six verses of the poem ends with that same line. Where is Magdalen Green in relation to where we are now, Riverside Drive Playing Fields? I have Kate’s laptop and so have access to Google Maps. Soon I have an annotated aerial view, the four blue tacks are, from left to right: Riverside Playing Fields (my view of the bridge), Magdalen Green (McGonagall’s view of the bridge), DJCAD (where Kate has her studio and will receive input on Tuesdays and Wednesdays), the DCA (the contemporary art gallery that has done so much for this city).

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All the blue tacks face south towards the bridge, which leads to Newport, which is where Alex was born, his Facebook page tells the world. He studied for his BA at Grays, the art college in Aberdeen. He’s not on Kate’s MA course, but I suppose he might have been. Perhaps it will be right for him some time in the future. Instead, for now, he’s been shadowing the curator at Tramway in Glasgow, where he has a flat and a studio, both of which Kate is familiar with. Now this shadowing is a volunteer position, so as with many young artists trying to make a go of it after college, money has got to be an issue. Are his parents, who still live across the river in Newport, being supportive? Well, they attended last night’s performance, so on some levels they must be. I have the vague feeling that all this is embedded in the script of
Drive-in Theatre, but I couldn’t put my finger on a sequence of lines and say: “there lies the artist’s predicament; therein the artist’s curse.”

The production is starting for real this time. The dancers are moving seductively, slinking through the grass and occasionally clumping onto the ground. Alex is running off into the distance. I can almost hear him chanting: “
This Sporting Life, This Sporting Life...” Alex’s grandfather was the writer David Storey, who came to prominence when his first novel, about a rugby league player in the north of England who succeeded on the field but who struggled with relationships off it, was published in 1960.

We would like to be our own free spirits, but instead we must struggle to come to terms with the ties that bind us. So there goes Alex trying to run away from (or catch up with) his grandfather. And here is me holding hands down the years with McGonagall. We’re all listening out for the latest train to cross the River Tay, courtesy of the monumental rail bridge, with its strong brick piers and buttresses in so grand array. Hark! we can hear it coming: “
This Sporting Life... This Sporting Life...”

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The play has started. And no sooner started than it is over. Gabriel oozed confidence and delivered his lines with 
élan. Sparkling Catherine seemed sure of her words and there was a truly fluent exchange between her and Gabriel’s piss-taking character. Kate held her end up impressively, only occasionally revealing that she had a copy of the script on her lap. And Mirren survived the middle class bullying her character was subjected to. The lines, most of them, have gone in one ear and out the other, but in doing so they have left an indelible impression on at least this member of the audience. But it’s not just me, it’s all of us that are clapping. Me, Annette, Tom, Jenifer, Deirdre, Euan, Tracy, Erasmus, Esméemilja, and all the rest who find themselves here at 11pm on a Friday evening, we collectively clap. Then we get to our feet to congratulate the actors, the dancers, the jogging director/artist/author and - last but not least - the night sky over this city’s outskirts.

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