A turbulent night before a family funeral in Glasgow might seem an unlikely subject to inspire a show created for one of the city’s biggest stages by the National Theater of Scotland.
But anyone familiar with the dark humor of the classic 1990s Scottish film Orphans will have an inkling of what to expect.
Peter Mullan’s directorial debut, which follows the travails of three brothers and their sisters throughout a surreal, storm-lashed night, has been transformed for a new incarnation bringing together the talents of a host of names from Scottish theatre, music, comedy and film.
Playwright Douglas Maxwell and director Cora Bissett have joined forces with singer-songwriters and composers Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly to adapt Mullan’s screenplay into a stage show with a 15-strong cast, including Burnistoun star Robert Florence, which opens at the Armadillo in Glasgow on Thursday, and will also visit Edinburgh and Inverness.
The show emerged from a desire by Bissett to create a new Scottish stage musical for the broadest possible audience – and to work with Hart and Reilly, after seeing their first film, the Christmas-set zombie high school musical Anna and the Apocalypse.
She recalls: “I went to see it as I knew some people who were in it and just loved it. I couldn’t work out why I was so moved watching a bonkers zombie rom-com. I had tears streaming down my face.
“Roddy and Tommy were the first and foremost singer-songwriters who had written their own albums. They’ve come to film and theater with a very different perspective. They’re very good at telling stories through their songs.
“They discovered that they love writing music that’s not just for themselves to sing and I love making shows with music in them. I know how much it connects with people.”
Seeking inspiration for a possible adaptation of a Scottish film for them to adapt together, Bissett turned to her DVD collection.
She adds: “We knew we wanted something that felt intrinsically Scottish, whatever that means, but not in some sort of couthy, cliched way. We wanted something with a gritty dark humor.
“As I was watching Orphans, I felt it had such a brilliant structure, with four people who lose their mother at the start. One of them gets stabbed and it triggers off a series of crazy journeys through this kind of dark night of the soul.
“I loved the storytelling, as it took grief and dealt with it in a gritty, darkly humorous way, but also explored the madness of those emotions in a magical-realist way. I felt it could be perfect.”
Reilly said: “We had talked about working together on loads of different things with Cora, but one day she just sent us a message that said: ‘Orphans?’ We both just thought: ‘That’s it.’
“The three of us watched the film about seven times over the course of a week. The more we got into it the more we felt it was ripe to be adapted.
“There were so many great take-off points, big elements and crazy things happening for the characters over the night. We wrote a couple of songs towards the end of that week that are actually in the final show.”
Released in 1998, Orphans helped establish Mullan as one of the biggest names in Scottish film, along with My Name Is Joe, which he starred in and was also set in Glasgow.
He recalled: The year after my mum died, I really wanted to make something in Glasgow involving how I was feeling at the time.
“I had four short films in my head and then thought of a very simple device where I made it about a family whose mum has just died. I wrote it very quickly in a couple of weeks.”
Mullan was relaxed about the prospect of a stage adaptation, meeting Bissett in person to discuss her ideas.
She says: “We’ve stuck pretty damn close to Pete’s original story and worked with his original story. We’ve developed the role of Sheila more, we wanted to bring more female characters and one of the sons is now adopted, as we wanted to have a more diverse cast.
“I think we’ve been very true to the film, its language and humour. We’ve not cleaned it up. There’s a lot of swearing and it’s very raw. We’ve not made a shiny version of Orphans for the stage. ”
Florence makes his theatrical debut playing Thomas, the devoutly religious brother memorably played by Gary Lewis in the film.
Florence says: “Thomas is very much trapped in his loyalty to the memory of his mother, to the chapel and to God. He is maybe struggling the most with how to deal with things. I’ll hopefully be bringing my own thing to the part.
“It’s such a brilliantly written and conceived thing. Everybody’s got some really heavy emotional lifting to do.
“I think Cora and Douglas have done a really good job of keeping the emotional centre, reality, surrealism and laughs of the film without it going in any particular direction.
“It’s a very funny, Glasgow and street-level story, with an unbelievable amount of swearing, catchy-as-anything songs, and an amazing set.
“I know in my heart of hearts that there are plenty of people who would absolutely love this but would never buy a ticket for a musical. The challenge is getting those people to see it. My hope is that word of mouth really picks up once people have seen it.”
Mullan says: “I’ve only seen a read-through, but it completely blew me away. If people like the film I think they’ll really enjoy the stage show.
“It’s very gregarious and life-affirming. You can feel it and touch it in a way that you can’t with film.”