SHE’S been dubbed the hardest woman in Falkirk and has her audience in stitches, but not because she has set about them.
Described as the most charismatic character to appear on the Scottish stage in the last decade, the hilarious Moira Bell returns to the Edinburgh Fringe this year by popular demand.
She is the alter ego of acclaimed writer Alan Bissett, who says he has discovered all he needs to know about his own sexuality by both creating her and performing as her in The Moira Monologues.
Loading article content
It is not a drag act, although he does wear some women’s clothes during the hour-long show.
“I am female from the waist down,” says Bissett. “I wear skinny jeans and leather high-heel boots and a neutral black top so you get a sort of vague outline of a woman without it tipping into parody or being too camp.”
It’s been six years since The Moira Monologues first appeared at the Fringe in a sell-out run, and while Bissett has continued to write plays and novels he decided to bring Moira back because people kept asking for her.
“It is a crowd-pleasing show and gets a lot of laughs," he says, "but it says a lot about class and about women’s role in society."
DID MOIRA VOTE YES?
THE play was first performed two years before the SNP won the majority that set the scene for indyref in 2014, but Bissett believes he must have sensed it was coming as Moira makes a speech about independence during the show.
A Yes campaigner, he admits Moira’s take is not what people would have expected from him.
“The character is not me and she has her own opinion,” he points out.
“Her view is unique and the audiences have probably not heard an argument quite like hers. There is a lot to laugh about and it doesn’t alienate either side.”
Bissett voted for the SNP in his first vote and for Rise on the list vote in the last elections, and is unhappy about the EU referendum result.
“I’m very, very worried about it," he says. But we’re probably guaranteed a second indyref in two to three years and a Yes vote is far more likely now.
“Of course, if Scotland votes No again that’s it. Switch the lights out."
WHAT MAKES THE PLAY SO POPULAR?
BISSETT believes The Moira Monologues is one of his best works.
“I am used to dividing my audience," he says. "Some people love my plays and novels and some don’t. This is the only thing I have done that everyone loves, regardless of background, their gender, their class, whether they have never been in a theatre or they are regular theatre-goers.
“For some reason there is something about that character that really resonates. She is based on the women in my family – my mum and dad each had four sisters and and a lot of them had daughters. When I was growing up my gran was the matriarch of the family so I was surrounded by really strong working-class women who are very rarely represented on stage and screen.
"They represent the backbone of Scotland; they are keeping families and society together but are not receiving any acknowledgement for it so this is a testament to the women in my family and a tribute to Scottish working-class women.”
WHY PLAY A WOMAN?
THE decision to perform the play himself came after he read it act by act to his flatmate.
“I had first intended it as a short story but when I read the first part to her she said it should be a play and asked me to write a scene every day to read to her when she came home from work," he says. "By the end of the week, I had six scenes – a full play – and my middle-class Geordie flatmate was lapping it up so I realised it had broad appeal. I was going to give it to an actress, but because I had been reading it to my flatmate I had started to get into the character. I started to feel comfortable playing her; I knew her voice and her background and thought it was almost a bigger statement for me both to write it and then portray her.
“I am still me, because I thought that if I did a drag act it would put a barrier between the audience and the character as it would be a bit more panto. I wanted the character to feel real and believable and thought it would be better if I kept neutral clothes so that the audience could project what they think she looks like onto me.”
Bissett not only plays Moira but also other characters – including a man she attempts to seduce.
“I am switching between her and other characters, some of whom are very male. There is a scene in the middle where Moira is attempting to seduce a guy so I am playing a man who is turned on and a woman who is turned on at the same time in the same scene ... so I have discovered all I need to know about my own sexuality.”
WHAT ELSE HAPPENS?
MOIRA is also forced to defend her dog, Pepe, from the local rottweiler, and belts out Diana Ross songs at a karaoke night.
“The most charismatic character to appear on a Scottish stage in the last decade”, said critic Joyce McMillan. “This is brilliant stuff, an exhilaratingly fresh take on the whole business of class and culture in Scotland.”
The show is a collaboration between Bissett and director Sacha Kyle, above left, and the duo have gone on to make acclaimed productions including Turbofolk (nominated for Best New Play at the 2010 Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland), The Ching Room, Ban this Filth (shortlisted for the Amnesty Freedom of Expression Award at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe) and 2014’s sell-out The Pure, The Dead, And The Brilliant, starring Elaine C Smith.
Bissett is the author of four novels – Boyracers, The Incredible Adam Spark, Death of a Ladies’ Man and Pack Men. He was named Glenfiddich Scottish Writer of the Year in 2011, and his first episode of Scottish soap River City recently aired.
He has also just written a play based on the life of Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett for the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, which will premiere at Oran Mor this year, and is developing a play about footballer Graeme Souness.
Alan Bissett’s The Moira Monologues is at the Scottish Storytelling Centre from Aug 20-29 at 3pm. Tickets are available from www.tracscotland.org/scottish-storytelling-centre