Mental health TV drama Takin’ Over the Asylum set for stage adaptation
Donna Franceschild on adapting landmark TV series feat David Tennant and Ken Stott for the stage
Takin’ Over the Asylum helped change some perceptions of mental health. Creator Donna Franceschild tells Brian Donaldson about the particular difficulties in bringing it to the stage
Not one for the simple life, Donna Franceschild gave herself what has to be one of the hardest jobs in show business. How do you cut down five hours of your own mid-90s television drama and turn it into a two-hour stageplay set in the here and now? Not without having to make some tough decisions about which scenes to leave out, whose parts to diminish or lose altogether and how to gather up a cast that would remain faithful to the source material while offering a totally new perspective.
Borrowing a phrase from her small-screen version of Takin’ Over the Asylum, Franceschild dubs herself ‘hardcore unemployable’, though she took on her self-imposed Herculean task with raw vigour. ‘The last thing I wanted to do was cut and paste the telly version,’ says the Scotland-based American. ‘It might then have felt like those novels made out of a television series and they never quite work. It did help to just start from scratch and the intention is that it works as a stage play for those who never saw the telly version.’
For those who do remember the original TV show from 1994 (or who may have bought the DVD released five years ago), they will recall a pioneering drama about mental health with the kind of sensitively-drawn yet wholly realistic characters who had rarely been seen on TV. Eddie McKenna is a double glazing salesman by day and amateur DJ by night who goes into a Glasgow psychiatric hospital to set up a radio station. With the help (and occasional hindrance) of patients such as the bipolar Campbell, OCD Rosalie, self-harming Francine and schizophrenic Fergus, the station becomes a driving force for good in the wards. But there are some inevitable challenges to be faced along the way, not least when Eddie’s employers get wind that he is spending much of his spare time with ‘loonies’.
The original show, which featured Ken Stott as Eddie, David Tennant in his first major TV role, as Campbell, and Angus Macfadyen as Fergus, beat Roddy Doyle, Michael Winterbottom, Andrew Davies and Coronation Street to the BAFTA for Best Drama Serial. Much of its success can be put down to the intricate detail Franceschild inserted into each person’s story arc.
‘Initially, I thought I had to strip out some storylines for the play, but when I started working on it I realised I had to try and let all those characters tell a story. Time will tell whether I got that right or not. As soon as I made the decision to have the whole thing set in the hospital, it gives you that intimacy and a sense that you are close to it rather than suffering a bunch of scene changes. From making those decisions, it kind of fell into place, and the outside stories like the double glazing strand and Eddie’s grandmother went, so the play becomes more about the hospital community and how it changes.’
Another of the key difficulties was in casting. David Tennant won the part of Campbell on the strength of an audition tape which quite simply blew Franceschild away. The tape sat on the writer’s shelf for years and is now an extra on the show’s DVD, having received Tennant’s consent. ‘After he saw the tape, he texted me back and said “what was I wearing and what was I doing with my hair?” says Franceschild, before reflecting on the new Campbell, played by Brian Vernal, another young Scottish star in the making.
‘We were very lucky to get David Tennant because he had spoken about nine lines in two shows when he did Campbell. I think we’re in a similar situation here; we are very, very lucky to get Brian Vernal, because he is still at the Conservatoire (sorry, I can’t say that with a straight face). He came in and read because Mark Thomson [the play’s director] said this guy was amazing. Brian gives Campbell a slight edginess without losing who he is: the eternal optimist, always with a million ideas going on. David was like an overactive puppy, and had that manic, innocent energy whereas there is a different quality with Brian.’
Takin’ Over the Asylum is at Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, Thu 14 Feb--Sat 9 Mar and Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, Wed 13 Mar--Sat 6 Apr.