On paper Paul Higgins isn’t the ideal casting for a theatrical adaptation of This Is Memorial Device, the novel by David Keenan which gathered up awards and influential fans in 2017. To give the book its full title, which might provide the uninitiated with more of an idea of its content, This Is Memorial Device: An Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk Music Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and environs 1978–1986.
Paul plays Ross Raymond, the man who curates the interviews and stories to piece together the story of the local heroes and the legends of the time – particularly a band called Memorial Device.
Not only hadn’t he heard of the book when approached by David Greig, Artistic Director of the Royal Lyceum Theatre Company, his life had no real parallels with Ross and the cast of characters – even though he was roughly the same age and he was raised in Wishaw, eight miles from Airdrie.
“It should be something I experienced but those years were my drama school years,” says Paul. “Also before that, most of my teenage years were spent at the Xavarian Fathers seminary in Coatbridge, where I was in training for the priesthood. It was only when I left I became interested in drama and I was off to college in London.
“So I didn’t share that experience of the guys who were 16 and had nothing to do.”
It helps to know how the land lies, however, and during rehearsals he and wife Amelia Bullmore, also an actor and writer and who was filming in Edinburgh as Paul rehearsed in Glasgow, tried to head off and get their head out of scripts for the weekend.
On the day we spoke, they were heading to Pennan, as much for research as relaxation; Paul’s next role is in the musical adaptation of Local Hero.
The intensity of rehearsals – “there are a lot of lines” – and the fact Paul is the only live actor on the stage, with filmed performances and one audio performance as his company means the pressure is much greater. The choice of venue, the Wee Red Bar is key to the adaptation of the novel to suit the stage.
“The change is that we are here in the Wee Red Bar, where Memorial Device played their only gig in Edinburgh,” says Paul. “It can only hold about 100 people so there’s no pretence and there’s no fourth wall. There’s a realism to it.”
Being essentially a one-man theatre piece, Paul was involved in how it would be staged and what would work best.
“The writing is so good there has been no problem in how it should be done. It’s been worked on for a few years now by the writer/director Graham Eatough and the composer Stephen McRobbie of The Pastels.
The script I originally read was for five actors, I think, but it makes sense it’s just Ross. It’s the work of his mind, gathering of all this information and curating it. And it works really well with somebody who has a load of mementoes, tapes, and stories, as he did in the novel.”
One change in approach came from the stage manager who advised Paul not to over-rehearse. Being part of a company means working and feeding off other characters, but only having filmed cast members means learning how to hold that space on his own. And having to learn all the lines.
“It’s not been too bad, as I always have part of the day when I can look at the script. I don’t live in Glasgow and I don’t have a lot of friends or commitments here, so I can spend my time here really quietly.”
So weekends away with Amelia were vital to get his head out of the script.
Looking back isn’t part of most actors’ DNA though and with This Is Memorial Device, Paul likes the fact that even though the 1980s loom large “it’s not about looking back. It’s more about saying, how do we live? That’s for all of us, including me as Ross. What do we do when we leave this room?”
Part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, This Is Memorial Device is at the Wee Red Bar Main Space, August 13–16, 18–23, and 25–29. 8.30pm.