THE upcoming opening night of his new play is going to be doubly poignant for Mike James.
Not only will it be his first work to reach the stage in 15 years, Matthew’s Passion will also mark his long-awaited return to Cardiff’s Sherman Cymru – the venue where he worked as artistic director nearly three decades ago.
And it’s a homecoming that the 60-something scriptwriter from Ebbw Vale says has been both exciting and bewildering in equal measure.
“The place has changed so much since I left it,” he laughs, adding that until very recently he’d been working in the world of children’s television in Scotland.
“I came to the Sherman’s grand reopening about year ago and was gobsmacked by how striking it looked.
“But now I’ve actually had a chance to explore inside I’ve realised that almost everything I remember is gone, aside from maybe the door to the orchestra pit.
“Honestly, I’m almost scared to venture off the path from the rehearsal room to the stage in case I end up disappearing down a maze of corridors, never to emerge again.”
Matthew’s Passion tells the tale of a 16-year-old boy from West Wales with Asperger’s syndrome whose love of bird-watching provides an escape from the religious upbringing instilled in him by his preacher father.
However, in the hope of creating a positive and calming effect on her son, Matthew’s mother introduces him to a local music therapist with whose guitar playing he falls in love, likening it to the familiar sound of the dawn chorus which soundtracks those early mornings spent alone in his hide.
It’s an exploration of the link between such conditions and extreme levels of creativity that brings to mind The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night Time, Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel about a high-functioning autistic boy-turned-sleuth which recently enjoyed a hugely successful transition to the West End stage.
“I’d been talking to a friend of mine who specialises in working with autistic and special needs children and he’d had an idea for a story about a boy who believes he can fly,” says James.
“It was a simple enough concept and, because some of the kids in his care were interested in doing drama, I thought it would be really fascinating to put one of them onstage alongside a troupe of professional actors.”
As a result, the play’s title role ended up going to Calum Glanville-Ellis – a 17-year-old Asperger’s sufferer and veteran of Sherman Cymru’s Youth Theatre since 2011 – who’ll join familiar homegrown talent such as Kathryn Dimery (The Story of Tracey Beaker), Ioan Hefin (Belonging, Con Passionate, Pobol y Cwm) and Ri Richards (Belonging, High Hopes, Satellite City) when the play opens next Wednesday.
It was a casting call, James adds, which presented its own unique set of challenges.
“Calum’s brilliant and possesses just the right level of wonder needed to play Matthew,” says James.
“He carries with him sense that anything is possible, but one of the key things I had to make him realise early on is that direction is not the same as criticism.
“Although, I dare say you have to do that with even the most seasoned actor once in a while.
“The other thing you have to do is make sure he doesn’t get bored because being involved in the theatre can mean an awful lot of waiting around sometimes – in fact, there’s probably a greater ratio of hanging around than actual working.
“But everyone, from Chris Durnall, the director ,to the cast have been so great with him, making him feel really welcome and going all out to create the right atmosphere and energy levels during rehearsals.
“What is more, you can tell Calum himself has really enjoyed contributing.”
And, as James points out, there’s been plenty of scope for his actors to give their input.
“I only really finished writing the script yesterday,” he laughs.
“I’m being serious, mind. I’d had the first draft ready by the time we reached our early rehearsals, but they threw up all kinds of problems with it and I had to do some on the spot re-writes.
“The whole process has been very fluid though, with everyone putting in their tuppence worth of suggestions.
“So I won’t tinker with it again until we’ve finished our stint in Cardiff, but how the audience reacts to it will dictate whether or not I work on the story a bit more afterwards.
“I never stop writing really – my scripts are like living , breathing things,” he adds.
Matthew’s Passion is at Sherman Cymru in Cardiff from July 24 to 27. For tickets call the box office on 029 2064 6900 or visit www.shermancymru.co.uk