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ON THE TOWN 2: Alistair McDowell

Emma Bovary continues her profile of Manchester people and shares a brief encounter with playwright Alistair McDowall in Victoria Station

Published on September 1st 2009.

ON THE TOWN 2: Alistair McDowell

“The turning point was when he asked me if I’d read Mein Kampf…”

We’ve all been there. Thrust into an intimate situation with a complete nutjob on a train. I’m not averse to sitting on the knees of random fellow passengers when I’m feeling particularly love-starved. Sometimes they don’t even mind. But playwright Alistair McDowall found himself with a particularly nasty breed of nutjob on the way to Durham one day.

My main problem with theatre in this country is that big theatres treat people like shit. It’s all boring, re-rehearsed repeats. If you come to one of our shows, we want you to feel part of it – as though it would be different without you there.

“Two blokes got on at Huddersfield – they looked like they were on something, and one of them was wearing a prison shirt.”

A bold fashion move.

“I was thinking, please don’t talk to me, and just tried to concentrate on reading. But then one of them started reading my book out loud over my shoulder. It was intimidating but I don’t think he meant it to be. We ended up in a sort of frantic conversation. When he found out I was a playwright he said, Oh yeah, like Shakespeare, then asked me if I’d read Stalingrad and started talking about Hitler’s strategies. It started to get scary. Anyone who’s so interested in that sort of thing is probably a racist. The bloke next to me on the train was an Asian bloke. We were all uncomfortable about when the unstable man might lash out. It was almost unbearable. Eventually he got off. He was only on for one stop, but it was the longest 20 minutes of my life.”

We’re drinking in Victoria Station’s Metro Bar, where Perspex-covered Pumpkin sandwich offers sit uncomfortably among algae-green tiles and soaring stained glass. If I wasn’t so amoral, I’d call it a travesty of a place. More specifically, we’re drinking cokes. Alistair tells me he doesn’t really drink, and there’s no fun in drinking alone – not in public, at any rate. I’m not oblivious to the fact that a glass of cheap post-mix in the hand of a seasoned lush such as myself looks as incongruous as the meal deal on the table.

As well as being pure of liver, Alistair is disconcertingly young in years (a tender 22) for one so accomplished. He co-manages a theatre company, Cheap Seats, and had a cult hit with abstract two-hander Daisies at the 24:7 Theatre Festival last year. Last month, his play 5.30 was selected as one of three from 2009’s 24:7 to enjoy a run at a proper theatre, Bolton Octagon, in mid- September. Not only that, but it’s going to the London Vic later in the year, before returning to Manchester next January as part of the Library Theatre’s Re:Play Festival. 5.30 is as brave and brutal as a Shane Meadows movie, telling the story of two men who get talking on a train – another instance of art imitating life, I’m discovering.

“I started telling the story to people, and it went down well. I thought I’d have a go at writing it. I bashed it out twice and hated it, but bits of it made me laugh. So I made it more of a comedy – I kept in all the darkness, but made the tone more light-hearted. I showed it to my old drama lecturer and it made him laugh too, so I sent it off on a whim.”

The team at 24:7 earmarked it for production, and Alistair kept up his day job at the Whitworth Art Gallery in the meantime.

“I first saw the play on the opening night because I’d taken a step back during rehearsals. For me, it’s a very Northern play – an edgy, feel-good farce. There’s a lot of pain in it, too, but I think it’s very optimistic and hopeful at the end. You just have to plough through a bit to get there.”

In addition to 5.30, Alistair has another play, Eighteen Stupid Reasons Why I Love You Lots and Lots, touring the UK and Belgium throughout autumn and into 2010. It’s a busy old time for Cheap Seats Theatre, now in its fifth year – which mathematics enthusiasts will know puts Alistair at a prodigious17 when he first founded the company.

“We’re shifting and open – we call on people, we’re not an ensemble. I don’t want to sound pretentious…”

Oh go on.

“…but it’s like a collective.”

Cheap Seats is, Alistair is keen to point out, very much inspired by the DIY attitude of small, low budget film companies – rather than aspiring to Broadway or Hollywood. He also doesn’t like the ‘F’ word very much.

“No, I don’t like the word ‘fringe’. It encourages a negative way of thinking. Too many people use the fringe as a stepping-stone to bigger venues. It’s completely disrespectful to your audience. My main problem with theatre in this country is that big theatres treat people like shit. It’s all boring, re-rehearsed repeats. If you come to one of our shows, we want you to feel part of it – as though it would be different without you there. Then we’ll be in the bar afterwards for a chat.”

Even if it is just for a coke.

5.30 is at Bolton Octagon (Howell Croft South, Bolton 01204 520 661 www.octagonbolton.co.uk) from Wednesday 16-Saturday 19 September.


For On the Town 1: Maria Roberts click here

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championSeptember 1st 2009.

'Bit gay this for Mancon innit? And I don't mean in the sexual bias way' - cheeky breeder, oh and i don't mean in the sexual bias way either - just being ironic, or something

Brown ratSeptember 1st 2009.

Bit gay this for Mancon innit? And I don't mean in the sexual bias way. If you can measure readers on a page, I would guess less than eight. And that includes me, I made an error.

AnonymousSeptember 1st 2009.

The man on the train might have been a keep historian!

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