Given that one of the characters from my debut collection of short stories, Chelle, a six-year-old chicken-killer, can clearly be witnessed berating her cousin Anna for wanting to do something as other-worldy as act, (she's playing Snow White at an amateur production at the Parc and Dare), and possess something as pretentious as 'theatre friends,' it might have seemed unlikely that the collection in question, would, six years after its publication, spawn not one, but two separate theatre adaptations, both of which would culminate in live readings in and around March this year.
Early evening, Friday February 25th, I put the finishing touches to a manuscript assessment I've been working on, attach it to an email, press send. Downstairs my husband is watching a Cardiff Blues game on TV. I check the time, 7.25. Suddenly the prospect of pouring myself a big ol' glass of Pinot and curling up on the settee becomes perverse. It's Fresh Apples Small Bites opening night at Tactile Bosch, forty-five minutes 'til show-time. How many fiction writers get to see their work performed on stage with a full cast? 'Loads,' I tell myself. Then, 'No, not that many.' 'How many fiction writers get to see their work adapted and performed on stage with a full cast?' I ask Darran. 'That’s not straight,' he says shouting at the line-out on TV. I text director and script writer, Julie Barclay, annexing an earlier good luck message; 'Forget the tomorrow bit, I'm on my way.' The eyeliner goes on in the passenger seat of our moving car. At the roundabout on Llantrisant Road the phone rings. The performance is about to start. They're waiting for me. Everyone is waiting for me, and Fanny, our reluctant satellite navigator refuses to acknowledge Andrews Road. 'Come on,' I say thumping the dashboard. Already my life seems to have taken on a windswept interestingness unbeknown to a mostly cloistered Welsh writer.
By the time I arrive they're a little way through the performance. Shelley Rees, in the guise of Jacqueline, daughter of a Valleys property millionaire, cavorts coyly, and then brazenly into the lens of her pornographer husband's video camera, the audience poised in the palm of her hand. I'm not here to lament the differences between the original and the script, but to gauge them; I'm here for the actor's interpretations, the audience's reaction, the potential in something I once considered complete. In the end, I'm not sure where I stop and where Julie's writing begins. The dialogue is altered, scenes shortened and lengthened, but her writing has got to the heart of my intentions in a way that makes the adjustments invisible. I watch, mesmerised, as Gareth Milton reads the end of the title story Fresh Apples to the audience. It is usually me who reads those sentences and it's surreal suddenly to be on the receiving end of my own words. Later he'll tell me he's learned to leave spaces in certain parts of the monologue where the audience will usually laugh uproariously, and about how disappointed he feels when the audience does not laugh uproariously, leaving the room in cold silence. Processes I know. Secrets I've never disclosed. As I leave I overhear a member of the audience comment on the characters, '… but they’re all beautiful people.'
The purpose of these early readings, both Fresh Apples Small Bites and Fale Surion, the Welsh language adaptation by Cwmni'r Fran Wen, is to gather feedback in order to help with the continuing development of a full show. At the second night at Tactile Bosch I offer free copies of Fresh Apples in exchange for peoples thoughts. Gradually opinions begin to drift in. There were certain things that weren't clear. The performance was good but the actors could have done with costumes… Next I take the train to Anglesey to sit in on rehearsals for the Welsh language readings. The actors have a few questions for me. 'Is Lissa from The Joneses a bit of a goer? 'How many chickens did Chelle kill?' (In the book it's described as a 'gathering' but they need numbers, if only for the right sound effects). My Welsh isn't brilliant but somehow I know what's going on, I understand how Manon Eames and Catrin Dafydd have gone about their adapting. Since Cwmni'r Fran Wen produce theatre for children and young people, the concern of the script is decidedly different to Small Bites with its strict over 18 rating. And yet the effect is the same. Here I am again, my fingers wrapped nervously around a mug of cold coffee while my world view is amplified and projected by actors, surely too talented to be bothered with anything that came originally from me. A little worrying, and, simultaneously, strangely and inexorably gratifying. From my hotel room I ring Darran. 'I think one of the actors is famous,' I say. 'Famous, in that Welshy Pobl-y-cwm way.' Later, at a reading in Chapter, Darran leans over and whispers into my ear. 'I can’t believe you didn't know who that was! It's Alfie, mun. Alfie Butt, the Welsh lodger out of My Family.' Darran loves his Friday night TV.
On the 11.05 from Holyhead to Cardiff I bump into my writer friend Tristan Hughes. We tuck into the cheese and tomato sandwiches his mother prepared for his journey. We talk about how we thought our lives as writers would be, and how they've actually turned out. 'Listen,' I say, chewing on tomato rind. 'I always thought Sixteen Shades of Crazy would be made into a film, with Johnny Depp playing Johnny. That's why I called him Johnny. But last night, as I was going to sleep, I heard the actor in the room next door rehearsing his lines from Fresh Apples. Huzzah.’ We laugh because I say it as if it is a joke. And it is, but not really. As a fiction writer I've been allowed a little glimpse of what many fiction writers don't ever get to see; their work filtered through other people, their work in action. Art is about pumping the things that excite you into other people's hearts and imaginations, and that's exactly what seems to have happened.
Now the readings are over. I'm back in the quietude of my office, back at my writer's desk. The National Theatre of Wales offered me a full commission last week so I have my own theatre production to think about, and start writing in July. Theatre friends? Don't knock 'em. Turns out they're alright.
You can still catch readings from the Fale Surion script at this year's National Eisteddfod in Wrexham. A full tour of the production begins in 2012. Photograph above from Fresh Apples Small Bites, (Gareth Bale and Catrin Mai) by Claire Cousin at Claire Cousin Photography.