DARLINGTON actor Stan Hodgson is quite happy to switch from stardom with a giant peach to take on a song and dance marathon in Edinburgh throughout the city’s famous August festival.

As a founder member of the Newcastle-based The Letter Room company, Hodgson knows his latest project, called No Miracles Here, is a real test for audiences because it involves portraying mental health challenges using the background of a dance marathon.

“We did this play partly through personal experience. Various members of our group have had different dealings with mental health, but we also wanted to make a piece that was full of dancing and live music. It’s not quite musical theatre, but it feels more like you’re at a celebration and it feels like a bit of an oxymoron making a show about mental health which also feels alive and exhilarating. We were up for that challenge because we wanted to open up conversations and hoped that we’d been seen as an assessable route in,” says Hodgson.

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With fellow North-East actors Alice Blundell, Maria Crocker, Meghan Doyle and Alex Tahnee, The Letter Room has won the support of the Royal Shakespeare Company, New Wolsey Theatre, Shoreditch Town Hall and Newcastle’s Northern Stage in creating a project which faces up to society’s reluctance to discuss mental health issues.

Hodgson and associates wanted to tackle the “why don’t you just pull yourself together” attitude that many sufferers face. “We’ve got a song in the show at the moment where a group of singers tell our protagonists to man-up and it’s that idea behind it of the British stiff upper lip. It’s about understanding the nuances within that and what that message says,” he says.

While the plot isn’t explicitly set in the region, the fact that the makers originate from the Northern Stage ranks means that there will be themes relevant to the North-East as well as the use of Northern Soul-inspired songs.

“Dance marathons were very much an American phenomenon and the plot came out of one of our members describing her depression where she just needed to keep going and keep going, because if you stop for a second to think about your life, then you’ll crash and collapse. So we thought about things where you have to keep going. So, along came the 1930s dance contest, which is featured in the film They Shoot Horses Don’t They. There is also a long history of people taking part in endurance events and life can often feel like one long slog, trying to keep up. Dancing for hours was an energetic and informative way of physically demonstrating how depression feels.”

After the run at Edinburgh, there are plans for an autumn tour. Does Hodgson see the work as entertainment or information inspired?

“We have been listening to quite a few influences. We’ve talked to the charity Mind, who helped us in getting messages across. We had a meeting with Prof Rory O’Connor, who heads the University of Glasgow’s Suicide Behaviour Lab, about what he’d like to see in a show which tackles issues like this. So that was a really interesting conversation to have. I suppose the whole thing is information-led, because we’ve been really listening to people who know what they’re talking about,” Hodgson says.

The company is busy forging a performance with the help of Northern Stage director Mark Calvert at the moment. “This has been a two-year process so far putting all these things together. We are at the stage where we’ve got all these ideas put together and thinking, ‘Why didn’t we simply hire a playwright?’,” he jokes.

The 1930s will influence the dance, with Northern Soul all-nighters providing some of the costume. “We’ve been influenced by early Dusty Springfield records, Shirley Ellis’ Soul Time and Frank Wilson. We’re just trying to get a sense of why that music made people want to dance. We are creating original music and making life really easy for ourselves. We are realising how bloody difficult we’re making life for ourselves.”

Hodgson’s parents, Amanda and Phil, still live in Darlington’s Brecon Road and he hopes that they will be making the journey up to Edinburgh. The actor-musician, who is playing guitar in No Miracles Here, is proud of his links with the town’s Federation of Mowden Schools, which were enhanced when pupils came to see his title role performance in James and the Giant Peach – Northern Stage’s recent Christmas show.

“I was really pleased when the school watched she show. It was a lovely moment because the school asked if they could stay behind so that I could come out and say hello. Most knew what school I’d attended but one little girl asked, ‘What school did you go to?’ and I said Mowden Juniors and she said, ‘That’s the school I go to’. I replied, ‘I recognise the uniform’,” he says.

Hodgson says he still feels connected to Darlington, in spite of being based in Newcastle now, thanks to appearing in a recent Jabberwocky Market production.

And will No Miracles Here leave the audience on tip-toe or dreading the future?

“We didn’t want a story where a guardian angel makes everything better. What we did want was a hopeful message and the central character is still dancing and in a place where he can keep improving. I think there are going to be some close calls for all the cast, and we’ve been thinking a lot about what is going to happen to these people. We don’t want to shy away from the issues, because we want to authentically represent their lives. Currently, as of this moment, I think all of them survive to the end,” Hodgson says.

No Miracles, but a bit of a mind-field then? “Exactly,” he laughs.

  • No Miracles Here runs from Saturday, August 5 to Saturday, August 26, at Edinburgh’s Summerhall Place. Box Office: summerhall.co.uk