The Last Train to Scarborough receives its stage debut in the most appropriate place. Nick Ahad talks to the novel’s author.
Andrew Martin has to be one of the UK’s least precious authors.
Several years ago he sat down and created a character and a world for the character to inhabit.
Detective Sergeant Jim Stringer was the man who sprang from Martin’s imagination and the world in which he lived was Edwardian England, specifically, the railways of that time and place.
Earlier this week I met Martin after the curtain came down on the first adaptation of his work for the stage. He seemed particularly relaxed, given that he had just watched his creation come to corporeal life on the stage of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. It was easy to assume he would have watched rehearsals and already seen the play several times. Turns out that assumption couldn’t have been much further wide of the mark. “After about ninety seconds I realised what had been done with it and I relaxed,” says Martin.
It turns out the first time he saw the show, adapted from his original novel, was when the rest of the audience got to see it too.
It feels like a huge sense of trust, for Martin to have simply handed over the novel to adapter and director Chris Monks. “Not really, if it wasn’t any good, then it’s his responsibility. He would take the rap for it.”
Jim Stringer was born in Martin’s imagination in 1999. The first book, The Necropolis Railway, saw Jim working as a fireman – the train driver’s assistant who shovels coal.
Martin realised the chances of Jim coming across murders to solve while working in this capacity was going to stretch the audience’s suspension of disbelief, so by the third book of the series, The Lost Luggage Porter, Jim had become a plain clothes detective sergeant working for the North Eastern Railway – a purely practical decision so that his inventor could put him in the way of murder mysteries to solve.
Stephen Joseph Theatre’s artistic director Chris Monks read The Last Train to Scarborough in a single sitting and knew immediately he had something he wanted to adapt for the stage.
It turns out that Monks’s notion that the murder mystery would be ideal for stage is shared by the original author. “Watching the play just now, I thought it was uncannily similar to what I had written. It was as though the characters had walked straight out of my head and on to the stage,” he says.
“It’s amazing to think the actors have second-guessed me so well. Writing books is a lonely business, it’s so full of whimsicality, you can’t believe anyone would take it seriously enough to invest in those characters.”
Trained as a barrister after graduating from Oxford, Martin has worked as a freelance journalist and writer for over 15 years. His first novel was set in the world of journalism, but since 1999 he has concentrated mainly on the world of Jim Stringer.
When the opportunity arose to see his work on stage in his home county, he didn’t hesitate. “I jumped at the chance. I find it difficult to imagine anyone would say ‘no, the story has to remain in my head’,” he says.
“Also, I love Scarborough. I grew up in York and in my first 18 years I came to Scarborough half a dozen times a year, every year.”
So the only, slightly unfair question left to ask is, given that he knew nothing of the adaptation, did he enjoy it?
“The book was written as a sort of darker Ealing comedy, with grotesques occupying this shabby, seedy boarding house.
“I really loved it. It’s exactly what I would love to see at the theatre, strong atmosphere, a whodunnit and a bunch of weirdos.”