How do you adapt an album for the stage? Writer Eve Nicol and director Paul Brotherson had been wondering if such a thing was possible, when an opportunity to create a play for BBC Arts and Avalon gave them the chance to find out. The result is If You’re Feeling Sinister: A Play with Songs.
Of course, such a project relies on choosing the right record – and Belle and Sebastian’s much-loved 1996 album seems both a strong contender and an odd choice, especially given the play is billed as a heist caper. Whimsical, wistful and lyrically off-beat, Stuart Murdoch’s melodic songs are populated with intriguing, awkward characters and gently fraught emotion – but they hardly scream action movie.
For Nicol, matching a recognisable genre to a well-known album provided a fruitful framework. “I’m interested in genre and the formal constructs of what a zombie movie or an alien invasion or a heist might entail. It’s quite helpful if you’re working with [existing] material to see how it might fit into that structure,” she says.
The play follows a thirty-something artist and a fifty-something professor careering round Glasgow – it may be a Fringe show, but Nicol promises there will be “some minor explosions, and car chases down by the Clyde.”
The main thing was that audiences had fun. “I was very aware we might be attracting folk where going to the theatre may not be top of their list, because we are working with this really known property. So I just wanted to show people a good time.”
She and Brotherson both live in Glasgow and wanted to celebrate their city – and few bands are as much part of its fabric as Belle and Sebastian. “Having grown up in Glasgow, Belle and Sebastian are just one of those things that’s always around, like the public library or the swimming pool,” Nicol says. Although she counted herself a fan, she adds that it’s been a joy to deeply re-engage with the album now she’s 30 – close to the age Murdoch was when we he wrote it.
The band have given Nicol their blessing to do what she wants with their back catalogue. “There has been real generosity: ‘Here you go, now show us what you’ve got'. Hopefully they can see something new in it as well.”
Nicol initially intended to use the songs in the same order as on the record, but the adaptation has become freer. Every track features in some way, although the actual record is never heard – instead audiences might be able to spot a lyric repurposed as dialogue, pick out a repeated fragment of a familiar melody, or enjoy a new live acoustic version of a favourite.
“The best way to get the Belle and Sebastian musical experience is to see Belle and Sebastian! So we’re trying to do it in a different way, rather than being a poor man’s version,” Nicol says. In a funny twist of timing, the band are actually playing If You’re Feeling Sinister live in full this summer in the US.
But for Nicol, it’s been enjoyable working with other Glasgow musicians on new versions. “I’m very much enjoying a pop-punk rendering of ‘Me and the Major’. And the title track ends up being a core central piece too, it’s beautiful.”
Why, out of Belle and Sebastian’s ten studio albums, did they choose this one? It was the mood of the songs, as well as the hints of character. “The whole album is quite upbeat, but it’s morose [lyrically] – there’s a feeling of never being quite as good as the others, which is something I can strongly relate to,” says Nicol. “So we’re just peeling out that feeling of shame, of being slightly other, of looking at the world from the outside in. The songs are done in this sunshiney way – but there’s sadness all the way through it.”
This bittersweet balance is surely partly why the record is still so beloved – and not just by people who nostalgically remember its mid-nineties release, but by generations of new fans too.
“It really captures a certain mood,” suggests Nicol. “I think for slightly older folk, it reminds them of that time, and for teenagers who pick it up it’s about promises of house parties and girls still to come, and for folk like me, in the midst of it, it’s like someone’s got all the secrets I have in my heart… It sounds real.”
The challenge for Nicol was to capture those feelings—both the nostalgia and the promise—and carry them into a new form. “If You’re Feeling Sinister very much is a Belle and Sebastian universe – and what we’re making is a Belle and Sebastian alternative universe: lots of things that feel familiar, but lots of things that feel different too.”