Highgate teacher’s debut play shines light on Britain’s 1.4m alcoholic population

Ism cast members in rehearsal

Ism cast members in rehearsal - Credit: Archant

Laura Donaldson, who teaches at Highgate School, tells Zoe Paskett about her new show, Ism, which follows a rock band on the road.

“This isn’t just the story of a rock band. Those in recovery who have read it have said: ‘that’s my story.’” says Laura Donaldson.

Based on true events, the Highgate School teacher’s first play Ism is also the story of the 1.4m people dependent on alcohol in the UK.

“It’s a tragic disease and affects every family, which is why it’s so important,” she says. “When I started speaking to people, it seemed everyone knows someone who’s been down this road and I wanted to get it out in an authentic and entertaining way.”

Donaldson achieved this authenticity by approaching addicts in recovery to be part of the production, whether as cast members or behind the scenes.

“It gave extra clout to what we were doing. Some of the cast, the production team and music side of it are in AA. Probably about a third of the team is in recovery.”

Directed by Robbie MacIntyre-McGovern and set in Thatcher era Britain, Ism follows the story of singer John Macdonald and his band as they travel to London from their hometown of Glasgow. After failing to secure a record deal, Macdonald meets a girl and is consumed by the capitalism of the 1980s. In trying to numb the pain, he descends into alcoholism. The play documents the impact of his addiction not only on himself but on family members.

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“Instead of breaking London they went along their individual paths and became involved in relationships, some with the bottle, some marrying and having children.”

Donaldson’s husband was part of Glaswegian band, White, that Ism is loosely based on. Their re-formation five years ago inspired her to write the play and their original music is a large part of the performance.

“We started the music rehearsals about six weeks ago at my house. It turned into a recording studio overnight. My bedroom has a drum kit in it and about twelve guitars. It’s been great fun but it really has taken over our lives over the last six weeks.”

Donaldson, who was an actress in her 20s, wrote the play during school holidays and was nervous about showing it to anyone but family and friends, until her husband convinced her it needed to be seen.

For now Donaldson is happy to remain on the production side of things.

“I don’t have a wish to act anymore. I really got into writing and production and it’s been a great creative process. It’s brought my skills as a teacher together with my acting.”

Ism coincides with Alcohol Awareness Week, which runs November 16 – 22.

This year’s theme is the impact of alcohol on health and society. According to Alcohol Concern, 1 in 8 NHS beds are occupied by someone with an alcohol related illness.

With many who have been through AA expected to attend, Donaldson is sure the production will impact strongly on its audience.

“It’s very difficult to have a meaningful healthy relationship when there’s a relationship with the bottle as well. That’s the universal thing that everyone’s picked up on. They’ve all said: ‘I can see myself in there.’ We’re hoping the next stage is to get funding to take it up to Glasgow because that’s where it all started.”

Produced by Mindplay Productions and Scots Shout Louder, Ism runs until Saturday at Upstairs At The Gatehouse.