Lee Hall always feels, and looks, very much at home in Live Theatre. Having driven up from his London home for the opening of the new production of his 1998 comedy drama Cooking with Elvis, which is currently surprising - if not startling - a whole new generation of fans, he’s relaxing in the cafe-bar and reminiscing.
The Newcastle-born writer, creator of such West End and Broadway hits as Billy Elliot and The Pitmen Painters, has maintained a close bond with the theatre and its artistic director Max Roberts from the earliest days of his career and his close group of actor pals - many known since school and youth theatre days - have shared his successes.
He’s casting his mind back 15 years to when Cooking with Elvis was born out of the creative partnership which has helped colour his work ever since.
“It’s a very, very weird play,” he says of his story featuring a quadriplegic former Elvis impersonator which raised some eyebrows on its London transfer following its Newcastle debut.
As fans from last time around will know, it’s a once-seen never-forgotten tale set in the lonely household of teenage Jill, whose passion is cooking up exotic creations; wheelchair-bound Dad, an Elvis impersonator until he was paralysed in a car crash; resentful Mam and new young lover Stuart. Plus tortoise. The grimness of their lives hits home but the play is mostly filthy rude and very funny, not to mention surreal as the audience gets to see Dad relive some rocking Elvis numbers.
It’s not an easy play to sum up: “It’s not like a musical; it’s more rough and ready,” says Hall. “It’s not like anything else I’ve ever written. That’s what’s great about it!
“The original idea came from a radio play called Blood Sugar which had Elvis music in the background.”
The idea of having Elvis come to life “was key to making the play a theatre piece rather than a radio piece”.
“Then it developed and got weirder and weirder as they years went on!”
Over that time (which included a stint at Edinburgh Fringe) with the original cast: Joe Caffrey - who is back in the dual role of Dad/Elvis - Trevor Fox, Charlie Hardwick and Sharon Percy, he says: “We had such fun with it and kept on fiddling with it and so it’s really funny now.”
Once in the capital, where Frank Skinner took over in the role of Stuart, some critics questioned the play’s pairing of disability and comedy.
Hall says: “I think there’s a very specific Geordie sense of humour that understands that hardship and serious things can also be very funny and that doesn’t mean they mean any less to you.
“It’s always been a way here of getting through hard times and I think that’s what the play is about: loneliness, loss, and sadness.” While still being, as he says, “riotously funny”.
“If it was making fun of people with disabilities it would not be tolerated,” he points out.
But the very human story strikes a chord: we relate to its tragedy while the laughs come from the truly bizarre situations that arise from it.
“Some of the stuck-up London reviewers didn’t understand it was funny. I don’t think any of my plays are about taking the mickey out of people - I think we are all absurd in our lives and do things that are cringe-worthy!”
And it seems audiences always “get it”. While this is the first new production of the play at Live where it forms part of the theatre’s 40th birthday year celebrations, it has a healthy following across the world.
“Weirdly it’s one of the most successful of all the plays I’ve written!” says Hall and he lists some of the countries it’s toured to: “Korea, Peru, Cuba, Iceland ... 50 different countries and all sorts of languages. Somehow it travels.
“I think it’s because it’s about universal things. And I think the Elvis songs help.”
It’s true that the king of rock ‘n’ roll has reached almost mythical status with a lasting appeal that sees his music brought back to life by impersonators worldwide.
“Also he was a blue collar guy; part of working-class culture across the world,” says Hall.
Here, Caffrey does a great job in capturing the moves, voice and accent. “It’s like The King is in the room!” laughs Hall.
“The play is so about Newcastle, especially with Joe the original Elvis.
“He’s brilliant; a supremely gifted comedian.
“There are very few people who could do what Joe manages to do. He manages to make something real that in other people’s hands would be cartoonish. I originally wrote the part for Joe and now I can’t imagine anybody else playing it.”
Meanwhile the three new cast members - Victoria Bewick playing Jill; Tracy Whitwell as Mam, and Riley Jones as Stuart - had their own input in shaping the current show.
“It’s been such a long time since we last looked at it I was worried that it might not stand up; that it might be a bit thin, but it’s quite the opposite.
“I think what’s interesting, and I can only speak for myself, is that I saw things I hadn’t seen in my own work and the actors show you new things.
“A really great actor will surprise you and themselves.”
It’s what Hall loves about the live, fluid nature of stage work and its constant audience feedback.
“That’s why theatre is in such good shape in this country; it’s not like film which is fixed and dead.
“What I like about this show is that it really involves the audience.
“It takes people by the scruff of the neck and shakes them about - in a funny way!
“When I started the play, I wanted people to like it. I was rather desperate for that.
“To re-visit it after all this time, I found a lot in there. I was gratified it’s very popular not just here but around the world.”
Hall credits others for its success: the “enormous” contribution by Max to his work and the talent of actors who can capture the truth of ordinary lives that enable audiences to make that emotional connection.
“It doesn’t belong to me; it belongs to a lot of people and coming back to see it is a treat.”
He has always been passionate about Live, a new writing theatre which recently hosted the debut play of young Newcastle-based writer Paddy Campbell, and he has been a fierce vocal opponent of Newcastle City Council’s arts cuts which make him fear for the future.
He’s passionate now when he says: “The irony is that this play was jointly supported by the council at a time when I had absolutely no money, not a sous, and it was hugely important I got a tiny bit of money to write it.
“That little bit of grant made a huge difference and it’s been repaid over and over again with Live Theatre tours, the fact it’s kept actors in work and travelled all over the country.
“This piece created 15 years ago is still giving back to the city.”
But the situation, he thinks, will be very different in the future.
“Paddy’s first play was an outstanding piece of writing. But how is the theatre now going to be able to find those people, support them and create something to be proud of?”
What has been built up here is unique and, for the business-conscious, it could not have been more successful. Hall’s own plays have gone on to Broadway but the arts cuts could mean “it can’t happen for another generation”.
“Of course I understand about the problem of local authority funding,” he says. “But I think they really don’t properly understand what they have done.”
The arts here are inclusive, he adds. “It’s not ‘us’ and ‘them’.
“You don’t have to have O’levels to come and see one of my plays yet I want them to be as sophisticated and as good as any highfalutin theatre in London.”
Newcastle’s bought-and-paid-for reputation for culture - “not just the theatre community but art, photography, film, literature, and dance” - is “the envy of people nationally”.
“What makes Newcastle special is the people, the history of those people and the culture of the North East.”
He’s concerned on a couple of occasions as we chat that he might sound pretentious but the writer, always keen to beat the drum for the North East, comes across as very much down to earth, even when he says: “I feel I’m a tiny representative of something much, much bigger than me and fed by the language of Newcastle, its stories and soul.”
:: Cooking with Elvis runs at Live Theatre until November 23.