Fringe preview: Whatever Gets You Through The Night

Arts editor Andrew Eaton-Lewis explains how a uniquely eclectic Fringe collaboration came into being – and his part in it

THIS month I’ve been wrestling with a conflict of interest. As arts editor of this paper, it’s my job to highlight shows we think are interesting and exciting. But one of the Fringe shows I’m most excited about is also one I was involved in making. Ordinarily, the answer would be simple – keep quiet about it. Except Whatever Gets You Through The Night is a much bigger deal than the stuff I usually do outside office hours.

The director is Cora Bissett, who won a record-breaking number of awards at the 2010 Fringe (and an Olivier) for Roadkill, then had another big hit last year with her musical Glasgow Girls. The show’s core creative team also includes David Greig, Scotland’s most high-profile and prolific playwright, back at the festival this year with The Events after working on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with Sam Mendes.

Other writers involved include Alan Bissett (whose Ban This Filth! has been a talking point this festival), Kieran Hurley (creator of Beats and co-writer of Chalk Farm), and Alan Spence, the poet and novelist, whose new book Night Boat was launched at the festival last week. And that’s before we get to the musicians – Ricky Ross of Deacon Blue, Eugene Kelly of Kurt Cobain’s favourite band, the Vaselines, RM Hubbert, winner of this year’s Scottish Album of the Year Award, rising stars Rachel Sermanni and Withered Hand (who both played headline shows at the Queen’s Hall earlier this month), Emma Pollock of the Delgados, Meursault, Errors, Wounded Knee …

Given the calibre of the names above, the involvement of little old me feels like a minor detail. And given that any mention of the project on these pages will be interpreted by some as a shameless plug for my own show anyway, I might as well just go the whole hog and write about it properly myself.

Now we’ve got that bit out of the way, what is Whatever Gets You Through The Night? A year after its first performance at the Arches in Glasgow, we’re still not quite sure. It began life as an idea (Cora’s) to bring together the worlds of Scottish theatre and Scottish indie music, in – and this was the key detail – an equal partnership. Not a piece of theatre with a live band, or a gig with theatrical elements, but something that was as much one thing as the other.

In a way, Cora and David had done this already, on a smaller scale, with Midsummer, a lost weekend comedy created in what was very much an equal collaboration with Gordon McIntyre from the Edinburgh band ballboy (to this day, audiences mistake bits David wrote for bits Gordon wrote, and vice versa). In a very different way, so had my band Swimmer One, with an experimental show called We Just Make Music For Ourselves, in which we and the theatre company Highway Diner competed for attention for an hour. (Conclusion of experiment: Highway Diner were way more rock ‘n’ roll than we were.)

This, though, would be much bigger. Fresh from the success of Roadkill and Midsummer, Cora had been invited by the Arches and Creative Scotland to come up with her “dream project”. As it happened, before Cora was a theatre director she had been an indie musician – you’ll find her name in the credits of albums by Mogwai, Arab Strap and others. Her band Darlingheart once supported Radiohead and Blur, but that’s another story. Her dream project – partly inspired by Ballads of the Book, a Chemikal Underground album on which bands wrote songs with poets and novelists – was to create a big, ambitious show that brought together ten bands and ten theatre writers.

In search of collaborators, she called David and Swimmer One. We began by swapping reading lists and playlists. We made a few rules. All choices had to be unanimous. We should avoid the obvious (musicians who had already worked in theatre, for example). And we should approach people we genuinely loved, rather than trying to be cool, or populist, or any ulterior motive in between. Then we began phoning and e-mailing. To our delight, almost everyone we asked said yes.

What we would actually do with all these people was another question. At first we thought we’d pair them all off and create a kind of anthology show in ten chapters, before we realised how impractical it would be to have actors moving between ten sets of rehearsals, and how restrictive this might be anyway. Briefly we pondered just combining bands and actors instead, on the grounds that Scotland had lots of brilliant lyricists who could effectively act as storytellers. But that felt too much like just a gig. .

Initially – in homage to the film Paris Je T’Aime – it was all to be set in Glasgow, but a lot of the people we wanted to work with weren’t from there, so that idea was swiftly abandoned (although I think I spotted bits of it in Glasgow Girls). Then we decided that it would be a set of stories all taking place in different places across Scotland on one night, like Jim Jarmusch’s film Night on Earth.

For a while the show was called We All Feel Better In The Dark (after an old Pet Shop Boys B-side). Then it was 4am (this being, psychologically, the darkest hour for many people; too late to sleep, too early to rise – see Sarah Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis). We procrastinated for ages over the title Whatever Gets You Through The Night. None of us is a John Lennon fan, particularly (sorry). We worried it was too obvious, too familiar. Still, it had a ring to it. A lot of the songs and stories our musicians and writers were sending us were about surviving the night as much as revelling in it – Ricky Ross’s The North Star was desperately sad. Rachel Sermanni’s Lonely Taxi, 2am was about stumbling home drunk, giddy but alone. Stef Smith’s story Loch Lomond – the show’s most poignant moment – was about an old man saying a final goodbye to his wife. All these characters were finding different ways to get through the night.

I remember panicking a little when all this material began rolling in. We had set our writers and musicians a deliberately loose brief – write something, anything, set between the hours of midnight and 4am. We got: a vivid, dense poem about insects; a short story about a flower seller in Aberdeen; a very dark mini-play about a man who pretends to be a werewolf; a funny song about chips and cheese; a song called Ultimate Heat Death of the Universe… How the hell would it all fit together?

And yet, somehow, it did. It’s a funny old mix, not half-theatre, half-gig in the end, but something else entirely – a collage of different experiments. Some scenes began with scripts, some grew out of actors or musicians improvising. Some scenes are like tiny plays, others are just a guitarist quietly playing against visuals by another collaborator. Artist Kim Beveridge. Beatboxer Bigg Taj and experimental folk musician Wounded Knee created a whole clubbing scene using only their voices. Withered Hand’s Dan Willson plays a busker and a singing security guard. It’s a bit like a circus. A bit like a cabaret. A bit like a party. A bit like a lullaby. If that sounds like your sort of thing, come see it.

MORE INFO:  Whatever Gets You Through The Night is at the Queen’s Hall