The National – interview with Bingo! director Jemima Levick

Star-studded cast will help Bingo! hit the jackpot

Nadine McBay interviews Jemima levick

ACCORDING to research by WhichBingo in 2016, 1.9 million people in Britain play bingo every month, more than most sports. Though the majority now tick off the numbers online, around 800,000 still go to bingo halls – that’s a lot of people brandishing dabbers in the hope of calling “house!”

Around 80 per cent of those folk are women, says Jemima Levick, artistic director of Stellar Quines, the theatre company which recently announced that its regular funding had been returned to standstill level for 2018 to 2020. The decision was part of a rethink by Creative Scotland which also saw five organisations having their regular funding reinstated: Birds of Paradise, Catherine Wheels, Dunedin Consort, Lung Ha and Visible Fictions.

“We are really, really pleased and relieved,” says Levick. “It is delightful to know that we can keep going. But it was a stressful time. We got there by a hair’s breadth.”

A co-production with fellow Edinburgh-based company Grid Iron, Bingo! is a comedy musical centring on a night out that may change the fortunes of a group of women, including Daniella, who desperately needs the help of Lady Luck.

She’s played by Two Doors Down’s Louise McCarthy, who joins her Scots Squad co-star Darren Brownlie in a cast which also features Killing Me Softly’s Wendy Seager, River City’s Barbara Rafferty and Jo Freer, and Jane McCarry, most familiar as Still Game’s Isa.

The cast and crew of the show, which is co-written by Anita Vettesse and Johnny McKnight and features music by Alan Penman, recently went to the bingo themselves.

“We got there early to do a photoshoot and there was a woman already there,” Levick says. “She was a regular who had come early to claim her ‘lucky table’. It was surprisingly busy for a Tuesday night, there must have been at least 500 people there.”

The idea for Bingo! goes back to a conversation Levick had with Judith Doherty, co-artistic director of Grid Iron, when the former was working at Dundee Rep, where she served as associate director and artistic director. Like many workplaces, the Rep team ran a lottery syndicate, but it was going to the bingo that Levick enjoyed more.

“I loved it,” she says. “Not that I ever won anything, but there was something fascinating about the space and the theatricality of the event, the tension. I noticed the number of women who were there for a night out. Not to get steaming drunk – many would take out their box of sandwiches and sit with their cups of tea. This was sociable but it was serious too, these were quite high stakes.”

At the height of the game’s post-war popularity, there were around 800 bingo halls across Britain, and it’s played daily in community centres, residential homes and pub function rooms. As Levick found out when she spoke with players, the anticipation of winning is just one aspect of the game’s draw.

“Many people have a relationship with bingo that’s about more than money,” she says. “There was a woman who always went to the bingo whenever she saw her grandma. Many people have some kind of family tradition about it, or go with a particular group of friends. My granny would go to the bingo, it was her social thing. She’d say: ‘You know, I’m feeling lucky tonight.’ And off she’d go, and come back with 300 quid in her handbag.”

With its origins dating back to 16th century Italy, there are versions of bingo around the world. In 19th century Germany cards helped children with their spelling, history and times tables, an adaptation which may be partly responsible for its association with women. Even now, it is more socially acceptable for a woman to go to bingo rather than the bookies. Even some places of worship which wouldn’t normally allow gambling on the premises may make an exception for bingo, if, say, it’s to raise funds. And bingo is gambling, let’s remember.

“There is some kind of truth to the fact that, while I wouldn’t describe myself as a gambler, I’m quite happy to say I go to the bingo now and again,” says Levick. “Like a lot of people

I also know how I would divide up my winnings if I won the lottery. There’s a ‘national game’ where all the bingo halls around Britain link up and the prizes are bigger. The biggest ever prize was £1 million – and that went to a woman from Motherwell. People do win – it feels a tenable thing.”

It’s that hope which keeps you playing, however unlikely the odds are in reality. For some, it’s part of a financial plan. The women in the play are saving to go on a hen do in Las Vegas, where they hope to play for bigger amounts.

Though best known for site-specific work, Grid Iron designed the set of Bingo! for touring the production, which, Levick says, is the result of a collaboration based on some of the themes of the play.

“It’s about camaraderie, friendship, parenthood and strength in numbers, but also about hope, and that fantasy that we all have – of how our lives might change with that big win,” she says. “It’s a play that never fails to take me by surprise, it makes me laugh and cry.”

Nadine McBay The National