MOST people know Johnny McKnight as Glasgow’s king of panto.

He writes, directs and stars in Christmas shows across Scotland, but mainly the MacRobert in Stirling and the Tron in Glasgow, where he has legendary status as one of the city’s funniest and freshest panto dames.

Glasgow Times: Johnny McKnight. Pic: Sally Jubb

His current project, however, is about as far away from the jingly, joyous world of Glasgow pantomime as it is possible to be.

Rubble, a new work with music by acclaimed composer Gareth Williams, tackles themes of child abuse and trauma in the care system.

It is being performed by members of Scottish Opera Young Company, who are aged between 17 and 23, joined by professional soprano Shuna Scott Sendall.

Glasgow Times: Johnny and Gareth in rehearsals. Pic: Sally Jubb

It is searingly honest, and at times darkly comedic, and four performances, written in Scots dialect and originally commissioned as part of the Scottish Opera Outreach and Education Programme’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 2021, will be staged at the Company’s Elmbank Crescent premises next week.

This is Gareth and Johnny’s third collaboration for Scottish Opera, having previously worked on The Last One Out (2012) and Hand for the 2013 Opera Highlights tour.

Inspired by English writer Graham Greene’s short story The Destructors, Rubble is set in both the 1980s and present day Glasgow, and tells a harrowing yet inspiring tale of surviving trauma.

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This part-horror, part-black comedy follows a group of young people as stand they amongst the debris of a former children’s care home. As they pick through the shattered fragments of their childhood, they speak of what really went on in that largely ignored property on the outskirts of town.

Johnny explains: “I’d never seen young people be allowed to speak up on stage on behalf of another generation of young people and their trauma.

“Now this generation is holding people accountable for things that have gone on too long – like #MeToo – there’s a resurgence of young folk claiming authority.”

He adds: “The young people we are working with are brilliant, so smart, much smarter than I ever was at 17. And they are aware of what’s going on around them, and willing to talk about it. My generation – we brushed things under the carpet. We buried shame, didn’t talk about it, put up a front regardless of what was going on inside.”

Resilience is a word used a lot about today’s young people, Johnny agrees. “They’re coping with a Tory government, austerity, cuts to their education, cost of living, the pandemic – and yet they are resilient. I’ve been so impressed with the level of maturity shown by these young performers,” he says.

“And they are so talented – the first time I heard them sing all together, oh my god, there were shivers running up my spine.

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“It has been a while getting this off the ground because of Covid, so the songs have been in my head since then. Hearing them sung live - I couldn’t stop crying. It was ridiculous.”

The team worked hard to “keep a humorous lens”, adds Johnny.

“I think that’s how Irish and Scottish nationalities delve into this type of thing, where there’s real darkness there’s also real humour,” he says. “And, the rehearsal room is joyful – the darker the material, the more joyful the room needs to be. It’s exciting to be working with young artists at the start of their professional careers to be able to tell this kind of story.

Johnny adds: “Theatre is brilliant for helping people express themselves, it’s cathartic, it can be where you meet people who, finally, are the same as you. Some of my best memories are from my days in youth theatre.”

Johnny grew up in Ayrshire, and “got into acting really late,” he says.

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“I’d never even seen a play until I was about 16,” he says. “I grew up in Ardrossan, so there wasn’t much theatre about to go and see, and we didn’t do drama at school. I was in my first year of a law degree at Strathclyde University when a lecturer said to me, there are more unemployed lawyers than unemployed actors and that was that. I knew I was in the wrong place so I quit after first year, worked in Safeway for a while, and eventually went to what was then the RSAMD to study.

“I just didn’t see it growing up – people like me didn’t do theatre, so it never seemed possible.”

Johnny’s first foray into the world of pantomime came in 2004, when actor and writer Tony Roper cast him as the “daft laddie” in Dunfermline, but it is far from the only string to his bow.

He is currently preparing for the premiere of 101 Dalmatians in London – “polar opposite from Rubble,” he smiles – having written the book from a stage adaptation by Zinnie Harris, and actor and writer Douglas Hodge has written the music and lyrics.

His play The Golden Rage, about Hollywood gossip columnists, will be part of the new autumn season at Oran Mor and them, of course, it will be pantomime time.

“It feels like this year, we might get back to normal,” he says. “Finally, Wizard of Oz will go ahead at the Tron after being cancelled for the last two years. It’s slightly terrifying, actually, because it’s been so long.

“I quite enjoyed the first year, as it was the first Christmas I’d had off in about two decades.”

He grins: “But by the second year? No, that was enough. I can’t wait to get back. Glasgow without panto is just wrong.”

Rubble is on at Scottish Opera’s HQ on Elmbank Street on July 30 and 31.

For tickets and more information visit