The Fringe thrives on firsts and there will be lots of them in a record-breaking year in 2011. But is anything likely to top the sheer joy to be had from watching the festival’s oldest and youngest performer, both onstage together, both dancing?
Family drama A Conversation With Carmel – a pioneering fusion of dance, theatre, film and community performance, made by Glasgow-based company Barrowland Ballet – promises to be one of the feel-good hits of Edinburgh this August. Part of the Made in Scotland showcase, it stars an ensemble cast that spans the generations, from show creator and choreographer Natasha Gilmore’s eight-month-old son Otis to a venerable dance legend in 83-year-old Diana Payne-Myers.
I meet Payne-Myers at Glasgow's Tron Theatre café bar the day after Carmel’s final preview performance in Glasgow. Her age-defying energy is immediately infectious – she barely stops moving throughout the conversation and twice gets out of her chair to demonstrate dance steps. "I must just say, being in my 80s, there’s a responsibility to keep going, like the queen," she says brightly.
The octogenarian actress and dancer plays the titular Carmel, whose family gathers at her surprise 80th birthday party for what becomes a microcosm of the highs and lows, laughs and cries and conflicts and resolutions that make up family life. "I’m the great-grandmother," Payne-Myers explains, "and then there’s my son, his daughter, her boyfriend, and then this little chap who arrives who’s really a great-grandson. Then there’s all these family arguments and rows, and what they feel helps them survive is dancing."
A unique element of Carmel is its immersion in local communities – a different group of volunteer performers contribute to the show in every place it visits. Additionally, a video element of the performance created by award-winning filmmaker Rachel Davies integrates footage of members of the public discussing their families. "It’s a particular kind of story," comments Payne-Myers, "a documentary in a way, with lots of filmed images and interviews about what matters to them in their lives and what keeps them going."
It’s the latest show in what has been a remarkable career spanning six decades for Payne-Myers. Born in England to Scottish parents, she first began dancing and acting in pantomimes, before breaking into the popular post-war world of variety entertainment. As part of a sister act in the 1950s, she once opened for Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin for three weeks at the old Empire Theatre in Glasgow. "Jerry Lewis used to rehearse every minute of the day," Payne-Myers reminisces. "The groupies – the young girls who rushed into Dean Martin’s dressing room every night," she laughs to herself. "It was such an experience."
More recent exploits have included an appearance in DV8’s 2003 show Living Costs at Tate Modern, which saw an evidently unreserved Payne-Myers sit naked in the gallery next to a sign saying "please touch". She also made her Fringe debut in 2007 in Muscular Memory Lane, a duet with choreographer Matthew Hawkins (who also stars in Carmel).
It was family that appropriately enough prompted her return to doing what she loves after a long spell out of the profession. Payne-Myers’ grown-up son followed in his mum’s footsteps and became a dancer, helping her to reconnect with the dance community in her senior years. "That brought me back to full-time dancing," she says.
I ask her if she’s been struggling with the physical demands of the job but she shrugs off the question, explaining that the really hard part is the travelling to rehearsals and venues. "To get to places like Easterhouse, I had to get up at half past six and get to a station," she says. "That’s hard, because there are no people at stations anymore. And as for putting money in the machine! I dread that, because I have to change my glasses." What about the secret of her enduring stamina? "My father was a doctor, and when we were young we had to walk backwards halfway up hills to use a different set of muscles."
And with all the experience she’s had in art and in life, if there's one piece of advice Payne-Myers could pass to her younger self it would be this: ‘Don’t be discouraged, and keep happy,' she says. 'With Carmel, the dream is to keep on dancing – and that means be happy, love everything. It is about love – that’s what families are about."