Turning my life into a play

Production image from the set of Maggie & Me

Turning my life into a play has been joyful, healing and scary - often a bewildering mix. Sitting in the audience that first night I couldn’t add another speech or even tweak a single line - I had to let it all go, including two younger versions of myself. It’s how I imagine saying goodbye to your child on their first day at school feels.

Maggie & Me is my story of coming of age and coming out in 1980s Lanarkshire. It’s a story about abuse and survival, friendship and family and finding yourself in stories. The Maggie of the title is Maggie Thatcher, who impacted my life almost more than my parents. She closed the Ravenscraig where my Dad worked. She passed Section 28, a law that stopped teachers answering my questions about my sexuality. She also celebrated strivers and I had to strive to survive. She was unavoidable. In the play she’s a living breathing character, something I couldn’t do in the book. The play opened up endless new possibilities and perils.

Two men sit on the ground with their legs crossed, looking at one another, holding their scripts.

Writing my memoir changed my life. It took seven years – from deciding I’d finally had enough of carrying increasingly heavy secrets to the last full stop. It reconnected me to forgotten joys like playing in the Bing or Carfin Grotto. It helped me process pain I’ll always feel. It was published in 2013 – the week Maggie died. Approaching the play, a decade later, I’m a different person again. I view my past from another perspective. My book is as much a record of who I was when I wrote it as the childhood it depicts. But adapting is a misleading term—moving from page to stage is like demolishing your happy home then trying to build a new one on the same foundations. James Ley, my cowriter, handed me the dynamite. I’ve written plays for radio but this is my first stage adventure and James was my guide. He helped free me from the constraints of my story as I'd told it.

Writing about your past is not about remembering – nobody’s memory is that good. It is about reliving. If you’ve seen the play, you’ll recognize this line – it belongs to great memoirist Diana Athill. I wanted to dramatize that reliving. But could I be honest about how hard it was, how hard I was to live with? Was there deep-buried joy to find? Was it worth the risk? The play gave me another chance to consider how I’d grown as a person (or not). To consider how we’d grown as a society (or not). I hoped it would give others a space to relive their own stories. I feared it might be dismissed, as memoir so often is, as self-indulgent.

Three men are sitting in chairs watching rehearsals, one of them is laughing.

Conjuring the show took two years and an ever-growing crew – publishing can be lonely, theatre rarely is. I’m so grateful to our whole Creative Team for bringing their stories to mine - in the miraculous set and costumes, lighting, sound and video, in all the ways. All overseen with skill and care by our Director Suba Das who has always believed in my story and my right to tell it.

Actors are empathy machines fuelled by feelings. I needed to feel a connection with the actors playing all the most important folk in my life. So, I was invited to sit in on casting. I learned that Casting Directors do the work of deeply understanding characters before cross-referencing with all the talented humans in their head. We met dozens of gifted performers. It’s spine-tingling watching actors bring your words to life – I feel very lucky.

DB is played by Gary Lamont. He’s trying to remember his childhood in order to write it all down but has blocked so much out he reluctantly accepts he must relive it all. Can he survive it again? Wee DB, played by Sam Angell, starts out age 8 then, before he knows it, he’s a lanky 12 then a speccy 16. Wee DB must grow up fast. But at what price? The man writing this article is still growing up.

Gary and Sam convinced me that they are me. After our first night a woman congratulated me on my singing. I said ‘I can’t sing.’ She insisted I could: ‘But I just watched you on stage’. She thought I was Gary! When I took my wee sister Tinie to see the show she couldn’t believe Sam hadn’t grown up in our house with us. Beth Marshall, our Maggie, instantly transports us all to the 1980s while refusing cartoonish stereotypes and giving Thatcher an essential humanity and humour.

Production imageof a scene from Maggie & Me. DB is standing behind Mark, who sits in the spotlight on the ground, legs in a basket.

The writing and rewriting took me to some scary places – it felt like running into a burning building to rescue boxes of memories, sometimes finding the fire started in the box. But more often finding more love than one heart could ever hold. More than anything, this is a play about love. The actors bringing Maggie & Me to life are unpacking their own memory boxes, only they’re doing it under bright lights, on a stage, in front of you and me.

That first night I sat in the Tron as the lights dimmed and thought ‘why have I done this?’ It was too late. My husband held my hand. Somehow I felt held by the audience - they were nodding and laughing and I felt my shoulders fall. I watched the actors own their characters and switch between them with ease. Nicola Jo Cully is my Mum, so very much my Mum that audience-members who know her gasped. Then somehow she is a deliciously sharp librarian then a sassy teacher. Douglas Rankine is my husband Mike but also my Dad in the past and present and the voice of Logan, who abused me. Could he really be all of them? I needn’t have worried. The real Heather was, thankfully, suitably impressed by Joanne Thomson’s deftly dry portrayal and warm wit. It’s not giving anything away to say, I wish Mark could see himself being brought so fully to life by Grant McIntyre. Maybe he came. All the folk who knew Mark are powerfully moved by Grant’s fabulousness on stage and that is a gift.

That first night we got a standing ovation - I couldn’t believe it. Was it tacky for me to applaud them all too? I couldn’t not. Every show, folk get on their feet laughing and crying. I love watching the actors take their bows – they deserve them. Afterwards, people tell me their stories and that feels like the greatest ending of all.

Production image of a scene from Maggie & Me. The cast are all dancing on the set under yellow coloured lights.
Writer James Barr sitting on a chair in the living room featured in the MM show

Written by Damian Barr | May 2024

find out more