Eve Nicol: 'The tone I've been aiming for is "sad that it's over, but happy that it happened" with some cracking tunes along the way'

For whom the Belles toll

credit: Mihaela Bodlovic

Theatremaker discusses the complexities of adapting a treasured album for the stage

Theatremaker Eve Nicol has form when it comes to suffusing her work – whether as director or playwright – with Scottish music. Her 2018 Fringe hit One Life Stand wove the music of indie-pop outfit Honeyblood into the action, she has recently worked with Glasgow songwriter Carla J Easton on the National Theatre of Scotland's adaptation of Them! and she was assistant director on What Girls Are Made Of, Cora Bissett's glorious gig theatre memoir of her brief tenure as pop starlet, which returns to the Fringe this year.

'I think it's the closest I'll ever get to actually being in a band,' says Nicol. 'Theatre can take itself quite seriously sometimes, so it's always wonderful working with people from different forms.'

Her latest musical undertaking is her most challenging yet – adapting Belle & Sebastian's seminal second album, If You're Feeling Sinister, as a 'play with songs' with the full blessing of the band and, in particular, frontman and songwriter Stuart Murdoch.

'It's been a great act of generosity for Stuart and Belle & Sebastian to offer up – in my eyes – this complete masterwork,' says Nicol. 'Theatre does adaptations of films and books really well but how do you take these songs that people have so much personal relationship with, and re-appropriate them as a whole new story?'

How indeed? Nicol gave herself some ground rules, retaining the original album tracklisting, using the lyrics to create a first draft, teasing out some of the named characters and the rich descriptions of people and place, and trying on a variety of genres for size.

'There was something about a lot of the driving energy and rhythms that exist within the music and the idea of taking something that isn't yours which felt a little bit spicy to us so what we have ended up with is a very low-key heist / unconventional romance story,' she says.

The play is a two-hander – Alan McHugh plays 50-something academic Boss and Sarah Swire plays 30-something artist Kid. And when they met, it was murder – or at least a bit of a crime escapade.

Swire is also the show's musical director, and can call on her Belle & Sebastian connections as their sometime choreographer and cast member of Murdoch's film God Help the Girl.

'It's not a jukebox musical, this is a much more DIY affair,' says Nicol. 'We've been referring to this piece as a busking musical in the same way that you can go down Buchanan Street and catch snatches of songs as you go. This is a Belle & Sebastian alternate universe that we are occupying and not a tribute act version.'

Apart from Boss and Kid, who sound like they could easily have sprung from one of Murdoch's whimsical album sleeve short stories, the other big character in the play is the city of Glasgow.

'If Glasgow's not getting used as a backdrop for Philadelphia or New York, you often see the not so nice side,' says Nicol, who is Glasgow born and bred, 'but we're also a city with a huge amount of cultural and educational institutions and a great deal of civic pride and beautiful spaces, and there's something about Glasgow in summer, that magic energy that comes through a couple of days a year that we are trying to capture here.

'Our big headlines are shame, desire and death, which I think are right the way through the album. The tone I've been aiming for is "sad that it's over, but happy that it happened" with some cracking tunes along the way.'

If You're Feeling Sinister: A Play With Songs, Gilded Balloon Patter Hoose, until 26 Aug (not 12), 3.45pm, £15–£16.50 (£14–£15.50).

If You're Feeling Sinister: A Play with Songs

  • 3 stars

Avalon and BBC Arts in association with Tron Theatre He was exhausted by life. She was tired of waiting for it to begin. Now Boss and Kid are on the run. A reckless artist waiting to be found and an academic looking to lose himself could pull off Glasgow's greatest heist if they can keep their hands off one another and…

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