Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s fiendishly gothic and psychologically thrilling short story, The Fall of the House of Usher, threaded with the inimitable songs of local heroes Lindisfarne, and informed by band frontman Alan Hull’s own time as a psychiatric nurse at St Nicholas Hospital in Gosforth, Live Theatre’s newest dramatic offering – Clear White Light – is set to offer a fascinatingly intimate and imaginative journey into the concept of mental health when it makes its world premiere this autumn.
Written by the Olivier Award-nominated writer Paul Sirett, Clear White Light is the first play at Live Theatre to be directed by new Artistic Director Joe Douglas, and can lay claim to two of Lindisfarne’s founding members – Ray Laidlaw and Billy Mitchell – as its Musical Directors.
‘The project came from Max Roberts, who was the previous Artistic Director of Live Theatre,’ explains Joe. ‘He’s the dramaturg on this production. But the play was concocted between him and Paul Sirrup, who is a big Lindisfarne fan. He’s a musician himself, he’s written a lot for music-theatre; he often takes genres or bands and makes really interesting dramas out of them. It’s not like some musicals, where the story comes because of the tracks; he goes deep into the genesis of the music and then finds narratives that seem to propose themselves. This is one of them, because of Alan’s connection to St Nicks, where he was working just before he was in the band.’
Named after one of Lindisfarne’s hits, Clear White Light is set against a background of cuts to our 70-year-old NHS as protagonist Alison follows in Alan’s footsteps and heads out to her first shift on an all-male psychiatric unit at St Nicholas’s Hospital. Interestingly, mental health was something that inspired a lot of the songs that Alan wrote for the band, such as Winter Song and Lady Eleanor, and is central to the action of the play – which hopes not only to introduce Lindisfarne’s music to a new generation of listeners, but also to relocate their songs and cast them in a new (clear white) light for die-hard fans too.
‘Alan, as a writer, never got the critical acclaim that he should have done,’ says Ray. ‘We were always seen as a bit of a jokey group because we enjoyed what we did – we smiled when we did it! Which was not cool. So I always felt like there had to be something more that was relevant to some of Alan’s songs, but not being a dramatist, I was taking my lead from Max. Paul came on the scene, and we kept coming back to Alan’s time as a psychiatric nurse, because the idea of sanity informs so many of his songs – if you listen through them there’s lots of little mentions to people’s state of mind.
‘But we were very keen to make sure the songs were done correctly,’ he continues. ‘I’m not being picky about it, but they’ve got to feel right. We’re not talking about doing copycat stuff, they don’t have to sound like Lindisfarne records. But our Lindisfarne songs were always performed in people’s natural accents, so it needs to be natural. For me, hearing the songs in this context is making them come alive again. I’ve been living with these songs for a long, long time and have performed them hundreds of times, but sometimes it becomes a bit like wallpaper, because you’re used to it. So I’m discovering them and, again, realising what an incredible songwriter Alan was.’
What is particularly interesting about the upcoming performances of Clear White Light – which was what both Joe and Ray agreed had been the biggest challenge in producing the play at the time of writing – is that the actors themselves will also double up as the show’s musicians, meaning they’ll be performing in both a dramatic and musical capacity at the same time.
‘Finding the people that can convincingly do the job, both from the acting point of view, but also from the musical point of view, is a real challenge because it’s an ensemble thing – everybody sings or plays,’ explains Ray. ‘So that’s been quite challenging, but I’m feeling positive about it. I’m thrilled to bits at the calibre of people that are wanting to be part of it. At this point in my involvement in Lindisfarne’s music – it’s 50 years since we started – to be able to do something fresh and new with the music is brilliant. I’m so excited about it.’
A North East-based play, performed in a North East theatre, inspired by the music of a North East band… locality is essential to Clear White Light and, indeed, to Live Theatre as an arts organisation. Telling local stories to local people is a huge part of the remit here, and was the driving factor in enticing Joe to the role of Artistic Director.
‘That was a big part of me wanting to come here and get invested in the culture,’ says Joe. ‘For me, that’s when theatre is at its most exciting – when it speaks to its local community, and speaks universal truths to them through the lens of what is recognisable. That’s what this stage has been so good at for nearly 50 years now. So that is a real raison d’etre for this, a real raison d’etre for Live Theatre.’
‘What I love about this story is that you could transplant it just about anywhere in this country and it would be just as relevant because there would be similar stories,’ reasons Ray. ‘But this is through our lens. Alan was very much an internationalist, but his songs were focused through the lens of being a Geordie.’
The themes of mental health have never been of greater interest, both locally and nationally. With increasing cuts to our healthcare services, preconceptions being shattered and our understanding of mental health continuing to develop, the time for a story such as this – which promises to delve into these themes in an innovative, entertaining and imaginative way – is now. And if you’re still undecided as to whether you fancy heading along to the Live Theatre this autumn, perhaps their Artistic Director can help.
‘It’s a really brilliant play, because it’s hard to define,’ says Joe. ‘It’s got such a broad spectrum of what it’s exploring. So obviously there’s the music theatre, the songs of Lindisfarne that are really rooted in Alan’s personal story, as well as in the location of St Nicks, which is interesting. But it’s also a social commentary on the state of mental health provision in the NHS – it’s a classic gothic drama retold in a contemporary way, and it’s also a bit of a psychological thriller. So between all of those different aspects, you’ve got quite an exciting night out at the theatre!’
Count us in.
Clear White Light will be performed at Live Theatre between 18th October–10th November. For more information, or to buy tickets, visit www.live.org.uk