Balgay Hill - Simon Macallum
Playwright Simon Macallum tells Mark Fisher how Billy Mackenzie opened up a world of possibility with The Associates
Today we associate Dundee with the enterprising work of Dundee Rep’s ensemble, the world-class art at DCA and the tourist attractions of the City of Discovery. It’s a place the Victoria and Albert Museum can consider setting up a northerly outpost without fear of ridicule. But not so long ago such ideas would have been preposterous in this town of jute, jam and journalism.
This is the Dundee that Simon Macallum recalls from his childhood. The actor-turned-playwright remembers it as a bit of a ‘joke town’. Even now, he points out, Stirling has a monument to William Wallace where Dundee has a statue of Desperate Dan. ‘When I was growing up there were no heroes from Dundee,’ he says, admitting to having felt ashamed when people asked him where he was from. ‘Especially in the 1980s, it seemed such a godforsaken place.’
Against this backdrop, the figure of Billy Mackenzie, lead singer of The Associates, seemed all the more extraordinary. This is the whippet-loving pop star who made his Top of the Pops debut in 1982 putting heart and histrionic soul into ‘Party Fears Two’. All trench coat, beret and cheekbones, he was impossibly glamorous. It wasn’t like Dundee at all.
For the young Macallum, Mackenzie was vital not just for his music but, more importantly, for what he represented. ‘I remember how strange it was having someone from your city who was a strange celebrity,’ he says. ‘I never met Billy, but he made me think you could do something more. Just from being an ordinary guy from Dundee, you could actually do something. He opened these doors.’
It is something of this sense of new possibilities that Macallum aims to capture in Balgay Hill for Dundee Rep. Named after the cemetery where Mackenzie is buried, it features songs and video footage by The Associates as well as music performed live by the cast. But don’t expect another jukebox musical, even one as smart as the Rep’s Proclaimers celebration, Sunshine on Leith.
Rather, it is an attempt to look at the impact Mackenzie had on Dundee by means of a story of four fictional characters. ‘It’s about their experiences of Billy and of growing up in Dundee,’ says Macallum, glowing with pride having just become a father for the first time. ‘One character’s take is maybe not the right story – it’s up to you to decide the truth. We’ve also used Billy’s words to counterbalance the fictional view.’
The fact of Mackenzie’s suicide – he overdosed on prescription pills in 1997 – adds a plangent note to the show which, says the playwright, encompasses the comic and the tragic. He sees the singer as torn between his humble beginnings on a scheme in Dundee and the world of stardom; a man, who despite his great imagination and musical ability, always felt an impostor. ‘I think a mixture of dark and light in theatre is great,’ he says. ‘There is comedy in the play, but obviously the mood does change because of what the characters go through and what happened to Billy. But my aim is for it to have an element of hope as well. Billy’s story lives on through the characters.’
Balgay Hill, Dundee Rep, Tue 9–Sat 27 Jun.