Interviews with some of the best contemporary British Playwrights

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Bryony Lavery: ‘I don’t know a woman who hasn’t got a Me Too story – myself included.’

Bryony Lavery in rehearsals

Bryony Lavery in rehearsals

The playwright Bryony Lavery, best known for her play Frozen, which originally premiered at the Birmingham Rep in 1998 and ran on Broadway in 2004 when it was nominated for a Tony Award for Best New Play is a cool customer. Frozen is currently on at the Theatre Royal Haymarket starring Suranne Jones.

We are having a coffee at the heart of London in a Caffe Concerto. “This is my first west end show!” she says. “I don’t think of myself as a west end playwright – so that’s really exciting – but really what’s exciting is the excellence of the whole team.”

At 71, she looks gorgeous, with sparkly blue eyes and a playful spirit. Despite being busier than ever and in the middle of a tech week. “A writer doesn’t have to be around in tech but I like going and hanging around. It’s when you suddenly realise the actors disappeared because they have dressing rooms. So, actually you sit in the auditorium with the technical crew and chew the fat,” says the Yorkshire born writer.

If a west end play wasn’t enough, Lavery co-wrote Brighton Rock, a new stage adaptation of Graham Greene’s classic 1930s novel. “My job is to transfer it from one medium to another and make it excitingly dramatic.”

“I really love adapting. I find it fascinating because it teaches you stuff that helps original writing and it spins my brain around because I don’t think I’m Graham Greene or David Walliam’s The Midnight Gang (Chichester) or Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons (Chester). Each has similarities that one has to address but I love it. If you are doing an original work you have to start choosing what you’re doing much earlier,” Lavery says.

Her commitment to international and regional work is remarkable. Does she enjoy writing for the regions? “I’m not a Londoner; I live in London but I came from the regions,” Lavery says.

“I don’t want theatre to be London-centric, I like doing work in the regions. I do think critics mostly judge work differently because it’s much easier to go one tube stop to the Donmar. Therefore that work gets esteemed more than the wonderful work going on in regional theatres.” She continues. “Because critics are snobs and lazy, bar a few honourable exceptions. Touring is tremendously hard work so anything that means people can walk to their theatre is great. I sound like Emily Pankhurst of regional theatre!” Lavery says, miming the act of gagging.

What does she think of Fake News? “I think I avoid the news…  But it seeps into the work in sub-textual things. I don’t think it’s my strength to write about Fake News or the current climate. I couldn’t bear to write about Brexit – I just couldn’t bear it.”

Is she still a feminist? “Feminist forever!” Bryony booms. “I’ve been one since I was born. You’d be an idiot, in my view, not to be.”

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Bryony Lavery: “Feminist forever!”

She supports the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements fighting against sexual harassment, she says, telling me, “I don’t know a woman who hasn’t got a ‘Me Too’ story – myself included. Men can have an inkling but can never fully understand that we’ve lived with this reality for so long. It’s so engrained because it requires men to give up power and nobody wants to give up power. I am watching it all with interest and hope with a lot of caution…” She peters out, lost in thought.

What does she think about music and drama falling to the lowest level in a decade as a result of the EBacc and education cuts? “When I was growing up the only theatre I saw was at Dewsbury Variety,” she recalls. “I used to get on the bus and see stuff touring at Leeds Grand. When I see work coming through NT Connections what that practice does for young people: their skill, their social acumen or their confidence. It’s a no brainer – let children learn… I’m getting incoherent with rage about it. What do I think about it? I think it stinks,” says Lavery.

She has a phenomenal sense of humour, so I ask her who would play her in a film about her life? “Here’s a story,” she says, smiling. “Jonathan Mumby and I were on holiday in Greece and in the sea playing a game called: ‘Casting The Biopic’ and we cast David Essex for his part and for me he suggested Linda Gray from the American soap Dallas… It made me laugh so much because it’s so wrong it’s right – I laughed so hard that I burst an ear drum,” she recalls.

Lavery is off to another meeting. “Next year I am trying to get a bit of a slow year,” she says, as she departs. “I have said that for the last ten years. I work quite fast but sometimes I have to say no – I say no to things that don’t excite me and I need to practice saying no a bit more.  I think I’ve gobbed on enough.”

Brighton Rock will open at York Theatre Royal from the 16 February to 3 March and then tours to Brighton, Colchester, Hull, Cheltenham, Winchester, Watford, Birmingham, Newcastle, Mold, Derby and Salford.

Frozen runs at the Theatre Royal Haymarket from 21 February to 5 May.

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Finborough Theatre, Neil McPherson: ‘Fringe theatre is undergoing a lasting change… I don’t want it to become a rich kid’s playground.’

The Finborough Theatre has had a remarkable year; acclaimed sell-out productions, London and New York transfers, the tenth Channel 4 Playwrights Scheme Playwright in Residence Bursary, nominations for The Stage Debut Award and an Olivier Award.

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Neil McPherson

Since 1998, Neil McPherson has been artistic director of the Finborough pub theatre. It’s fair to say he knows what he’s doing on the theatre front and if you’re in the market for a chat about that then today is your lucky day.

Anyway I hopped on the phone with Neil to find out what he’s got to say for himself.

In 2018, the Finborough celebrates 150 years of the Finborough Theatre building with the FINBOROUGH150 series, an anniversary selection of the best plays from 1868. McPherson may be approaching twenty years in post but he shows no signs of losing enthusiasm. “Next year is the 150 Anniversary of our building so we are going to be doing an anniversary selection of the best plays of 1868 – our new season, for example, features one play from 1868 alongside five pieces of new writing,” he says, excitedly.

Last week, Lyn Gardner wrote about the state of play of the London fringe, saying: The days when the London fringe was a place where the penniless and the radical could find a nook of cranny, where they could thrive, have long gone. Does he agree? “Sadly, Lyn is absolutely right.  Fringe theatre – as it is now – is on the cusp of a massive change,” he says. “Almost as big as the shift of print media vs the internet. For many years in London – the number of fringe theatres stayed constant – then suddenly over the last five or six years – a dozen theatres or more popped up. And that brings its own challenges for a 50-seat venue paying market rent,” McPherson says.

He continues, “I’ve never been a subscriber to the belief that “fringe” means amateurish. I’ve always tried to take the best of the fringe – the ability to find new and exciting writers, directors, designers, actors theatre; the ability to respond to events quickly; and to be radical and controversial; and marry that with the best of the commercial theatre’s values – a respect for training, and high production values, for example,” he says.

“It’s got to be good – just because it’s a fringe theatre doesn’t mean it can’t be world class.”

We talk about the renewed discussion of masculinity in crisis and the constant developments around sexual harassment. “I think the best thing we can do is shut up, listen – with humility – and do and be better. It’s time for a big change. And, it goes hand in hand with bullying which also needs to be addressed,” says McPherson emphatically.

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What steps has he taken to ensure that he is doing all that he can within the organisation? “Just this very last week we’ve altered our production manual we give to companies’ clear guidance. We also have the Royal Court code of conduct on display in working areas. The awareness is all, and, as my favourite teacher at drama school used to say “N.T.T.” which stands for “Nobody’s That Talented,” he says, laughing.

Earlier this year McPherson was nominated for an Olivier Award for his play Is It Easy to be dead – a play is about a remarkable WWI poet, Charles Hamilton Sorley. The play received solid reviews and transferred to Trafalgar Studios. McPherson is realistic about the sustainability. “In terms of critical acclaim and commercial sales – we could transfer 1 in 3 of our shows; however, we only transfer 1 in 7. And perhaps not always the most deserving ones. I always go back to the Noel Coward quote “Just do what you like and believe in and just hope to God other people like it too,” he says.

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Alexander Knox in It Is Easy To Be Dead. Photo: Scott Rylander.

McPherson is deeply aware of the importance of seeking out diverse voices and not being dependent on playwriting competitions. “I’ve judged some playwriting competitions in the past and personally I think it’s best to just do the new writing development work I’m doing anyway and then put on the plays when they are ready,” he says.

“I’m not altogether convinced by decision by committee, and I think quite often with competitions, we know something has to win and so we pick one that is the least bad,” he tells me, before adding, “They can be a good thing and an important thing but it should only be part of it the process, not the whole process for getting new voices discovered.”

What are the biggest challenges for the Finborough in 2017? “The Equity low pay – no pay campaign is hugely important, and we’re doing all we can to do our part. But nothing happens in a vacuum, and the campaign does have serious knock-on effects which in the long run may mean a lot less opportunities for actors and creatives,” says McPherson, adding that 9 out of 12 Finborough main shows paid at least Equity Fringe Agreement minimum this year.

“It’s slow progress, but we’re not being lazy,” he says. “The people now putting on shows are coming from a much more moneyed background than, say, five years ago. But, as an example, one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with – a female working class director/producer – she should be having a really successful career now but she’s more or less had to give up because she can’t work in the current climate as she is terrified of being sued if she was to do another fringe show.”

Is there anything that he’d like to add, I ask. “Fringe theatre is undergoing a massive and lasting change and I don’t know where it’s going to go yet, and we’re confronting those new challenges on a daily basis. I don’t want it to become a rich kid’s playground,” McPherson replies.

The Finborough’s 2018 season is now on sale 

 

Coverage of the above interview in The Stage

Coverage of the above interview in The Stage

 

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Playwright, Elinor Cook interview: “If the dudes are pitching great plays — then those of us who aren’t the white men need go in there and nail those commissions.”

Elinor Cook is not some no-frills interviewee. My time with the feisty young playwright involved her batting my base level questions politely, while occasionally pouring herself a glass of water.

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Elinor Cook

Not having arrived today with any sort of agenda, we simply had a chat. She tells me that yesterday she had an ‘impromptu Mexican dinner’ with the Lady From The Sea cast and Kwame Kwei-Armah to celebrate his recent appointment as Artistic Director of the Young Vic. ‘FYI’ she had pan-seared tuna tacos and a beer… And a margarita. “Two drinks — Mexican appropriate,” she says, laughing.

Her new version of The Lady From The Sea, directed by Kwei-Armah opens at the Donmar tonight. Ibsen’s play encompasses those familiar Ibsen themes: obligation, accountability, the role of women and how the past impinges on the future. How has she found adapting such a classic text? “I’ve found it a complete joy,” says Cook. “I’ve loved it and I definitely want to do more of this sort of thing because there is something about having the map in place. It’s gone through a couple of permutations in terms of the setting of it. The first draft was all set contemporary, in time of the second draft we had a conversation and decided it would be more helpful to make it post-colonial and that mirroring Ellida’s own restless and need to be independent herself.”

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The Lady From The Sea at The Donmar Warehouse

Cook is revelling the opportunity to work with the new Artistic Director of the Young Vic. “He has this ability to facilitate an incredibly open rehearsal room,” she says, smiling. “He’s able to make people trust him and each other. There’s a beautiful lightness and airiness with the work and with what is happening on stage and it’s all there because of his attention to detail. He’s really big on psychology and emotion and my God you can really see that. It’s just extraordinary. He’s incredibly generous and honest.”

Every Playwright has a unique approach to writing. Where does she work best? “I work in the library – I go to the Wellcome Collection Library, which I’d highly recommend as a place to work,” she says. “I try and do a full work day because I need the structure and just to have other people around. It’s nice to feel that you are part of something.”

We talk about the lack of female writers on our biggest stages. “You can’t ignore that conversation because everyone’s having it”, she shrugs when I suggest that the scenario is not exactly ideal. “It does anger me, but I’m reluctant to go: ‘The reason it’s taken me 10 years is because I am a woman.’ However, I am conscious of the fact that I am white, privileged and straight. I think it’s more about how you get into those rooms in the first place.”

Not, she hastens to add, that she’s had it easy. “As someone who’s had every opportunity, but struggled so much with confidence for a long time and that feeling that I didn’t know how to hold my own in the room the way my male counterparts did. I wrestled with the feeling that at any second I’d be chucked out because I had nothing of interest to say.”

How can we ensure a real shift toward gender equality? “It starts before the theatres are making those decisions,” she says.

“If the dudes are pitching great plays — then those of us who aren’t the white men need to make sure that we are enabled to go in there and nail those commissions. There are so many reasons why I would struggle to pitch something and if I find it hard then how hard would those who hadn’t had those privileges and opportunities to get on?”

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Out of Love – Paines Plough

Does she feel obliged to write about politics, I ask. “The whole gesture of playwriting is political in itself,” she states. “With a play like Out of Love, I wanted to write something very human, getting to the complexity of the relationship between two women. I wanted to excavate something that I hoped would touch people on a human level. If you succeed with something like that then you are asking the audience for their imagination and empathy. In this increasingly fractured world, where the divisions are widening, if we are not able to imagine what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes then we are kind of doomed.”

She continues: “A political play doesn’t have to be one set in the House of Commons, it can be perceived to be a smaller beast. My play Image of An Unknown Woman is my most overtly political play because it directly critiques a repressive regime and questions democracy. But I’d argue that Pilgrims or Out of Love, which are smaller in scale are political in a different way.”

Cook talks of the lucky opportunities that have come her way and in particular the pace at which she has progressed. “There’s something about being the age I am now and my career taking off that feels really right. I’m not sure I would have been prepared for the opportunities had I been younger… I was so crippled with a lack of self-confidence and self-consciousness… It was challenging.”

And now, following a storming debut at Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Out of Love is on tour as part of Paines Plough’s pop-up space, the Roundabout. The play is a comic exploration of female friendship spanning 30 years. What are the challenges of writing for such a unique performance space? “When you are writing for Roundabout the work has to have a universality to it – it has to have something that is going to resonate in Poole and in Stoke and in Darlington or Edinburgh,” she says. “There is something about that space; being in the round and with no props. It demands a particular kind of playwriting, it has to be very front-footed. It has to be very clear about what it is from very early on.”

She looks to Tamara Harvey, Amelia Sears and Charlotte Gwinner, particularly at the start of her career, for inspiration. “I’ve had really great relationships with directors. The first skill of a director if they read a draft and are able to help you as the writer really get to the nub of what you have to say.”

Today, she is honest about her commitments beyond The Lady From The Sea. “I’m at that glorious stage where I don’t know what the next project is,” she says, with a glint in her eye.

“I am looking forward to being able to see where my brain takes me and where the world takes me. I’d love to do more adapting and having written two very intimate plays with Pilgrims and Out Of Love, I’d love to go back to a bigger Image Of An Unknown Young Woman size cast and with international heft. But what that actually is I don’t know and that’s really exciting!”

The Lady From The Sea is at the Donmar, London, until 2 December. Box office: 0844 871 7624.

Out Of Love is currently on a UK Tour as part of Paines Plough’s pop-up theatre Roundabout.

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Review: Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle

Cometh the hour, cometh the show directed by Marianne Elliott, the inaugural show for Elliott & Harper Productions, the company she has set up with director Chris Harper.

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It’s fair to say that expectations were high… But as anyone will tell you in these difficult theatre times, coming up with the show can be the easy bit, and selling it is where things get tricky.

Simon Stephens’ play, first seen at Manhattan Theatre Club, is set at a London train station and tells the unusual story of two strangers who strike up a relationship as a result of the manic Georgie, played by Anne-Marie Duff hitting on Kenneth Cranham’s Alex, while he sits on a bench at St Pancras International. Cranham is spellbinding as a 75-year old butcher. His earthiness is shattered by the arrival of Georgie: 33 years his junior.

This is not your everyday sort of love story, but it winds up feeling both strange and familiar. Stephens’ complex two-hander is as much about romance and ulterior motives as it is about Werner Heisenberg’s physics theory.

Heisenberg is one of the plays of the year – a ninety-minute, intriguing production with the same captivating quality of true spectacle. The heart-breaking pairing of Duff and Cranham manages to encapsulate regret and hopefulness all at once.

Theatre sometimes revels brilliantly in its own meaninglessness. Other times, as here, it hits the spot when it stops being about nothing, turns its nose up at being about something, and fluently manages to be about everything. The questions it throws up about identity, attraction and love collide with a vastness that I’ve rarely experienced in a theatre.

Paule Constable’s gorgeous lighting glues style and substance together in an irresistible modern theatre collage. One of the most electrifying moments comes during an effortless scene transition with Duff trapped between the two walls. Thinking about it in the cold light of day, it all plays better in memory than in real-time. This is an accessible but immensely rewarding watch, and the music by Nils Frahm has an intriguing emotional reach that captures the sparse mood perfectly too.

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Ann-Marie Duff – amazing –

Other points are genuinely touching. But is that all there is to Heisenberg? Well, not quite –the duo’s chemistry will only flourish in enjoyable new directions as the production runs. There’s more to the writing and the performances than a first viewing might let on.

Not everything is sensational; Steven Hoggett’s movement sequences don’t always work. A section where the pair clumsily tango isn’t really that great. Intelligent choreography does more at the same time as it does less, making fewer things more impressive, making smaller statements count for more. When the choreography does hit the spot – it more than makes up for this.

Basically, Heisenberg doesn’t knock the planet off its axis quite as nimbly as theatre fans will have predicted. Maybe that was the point. On one hand, it’s not exactly Angels In America in the landmark stakes, on the other Elliott and Harper have come up with exciting ways to work in the West End and at least it isn’t Oscar Wilde.

Whether a prelude to an exclusion order or a heart-warming tale of encounter, Heisenberg is an extraordinary addition to Simon Stephens canon of recent experimental work; considerate and romantic enough for repeated viewing, but with a theatre sensibility that makes you want to head out in search of a stranger at a train station and live for the moment. Think of this as a controlled explosion.

At Wyndham’s, London, until 6 January. Box office: 0844-482 5120.

Access Booking 0344 482 5137.

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Playwright, David Eldridge interview: “There’s less procrastination when you’re a dad.”

As David Eldridge’s new play Beginning opens at the National Theatre’s Dorfman, he talks about his son, ticket prices, inspirations and success.

We meet in his office at Birkbeck University, London, where he lectures in Creative Writing. Chatting with Eldridge about his career opens up other windows on his experience. For instance: he’s a dad (“I always think about my son Bertie when I write, and he spurs me on”) For instance: despite having written landmark plays like Under The Blue Sky, Market Boy and In Basildon, he remains very grounded. (His best mate is a fireman in Essex, where he grew up). For instance: his new play Beginning was written unsolicited, but with the National Theatre in mind (“I wrote the play and then decided the NT would be a good home for it and sent it to Rufus Norris. Luckily for me he agreed”.)

His new play explores what it means to be lonely in a big city, features two actors and has no interval. “Beginning is a real actors’ piece,” says Eldridge emphatically. “The two characters in the play are on stage for the whole evening without a break. We were looking for people who didn’t just feel absolutely right in terms of the casting but who had the technical ability, personality and guts to do it. On-and-off that casting process took seven months, much of that due to director Polly Findlay’s availability, but we wanted to be absolutely sure.”

What are the particular pressures of writing for the National Theatre? “I’m not sure that applies to Beginning because it’s the first play I’ve written in ages that wasn’t a commission for a particular management,” he says. “I think opening a play in any of the major playhouses is incredibly stressful. On the Olivier stage at the National (where Market Boy was produced in 2006) just selling the 1,150 seats for every show used to give me nightmares. I think animating the larger stages at the NT is a craft in itself and both the Olivier and the Lyttleton eat story, so you need lots of narrative red meat and actors who are on the front foot.”

I wonder how he will measure success with Beginning. “I just want to feel happy that the play has gone as well as it possibly can and that audiences have got something out of it,” he states.

“It’s nice when you can see an audience laughing and crying and reflecting upon the action of a play. But it’s also very rewarding when audiences get in touch.” He references his play The Knot of the Heart, which premiered at the Almeida in 2011. “I kid you not, every day an audience member communicated with me in person, by letter, card, email or via social media to tell me how in some way their life had been touched by addiction. It was exhausting. But beautiful and humbling,” he recalls. “Everyone wants to have nice reviews for posterity and to help encourage audiences to see the show. But I’m much less neurotic about them than I was in my twenties.”

Which fellow writers inspire him, I ask? “Robert Holman has been one of the most inspiring playwrights in my writing life,” he replies, “Robert taught me how to be a playwright in many ways; but his own work, his sense of place, theatricality and commitment to the truth of his characters is always inspiring. Caryl Churchill, as Sarah Daniels says, is “our Picasso” and she seems to reinvent the wheel with every play. Her work always pushes me to try new things and to be bold. Edward Albee inspires me to fulfil John Osborne’s aspiration to give audiences “lessons in feeling”. And I learned a lot from adapting Ibsen. I think the work I did on three of his plays helped strengthen the storytelling in my own plays.”

He reckons that the economics of theatre tickets are out of line. “Theatre going has become too expensive. There’s also a part of me that’s still the slightly chip-on-shoulder, scholarship-and-assisted-place Romford kid at the posh school; who resents how much of British theatre is still occupied by privileged white middle-class men. I think the theatre has got a bit better on that score over my writing life, but it’s still a world that can be too dominated by clever posh white people and far too preoccupied with who’s in and who’s out,” he says bluntly. “It’s why I’ve always preferred to make most of my friends outside the theatre.”

We talk about the differences in writing for television. “On screen you’re cutting away to the next scene all the time and often the cut tells the story”, he explains. “On stage you’re trying to sustain the action. Too many scene changes, inelegantly done, make for a tiresome evening in the theatre. I think TV writing, like writing for a large theatre space, eats story and you really have to pique an audience’s interest the whole time. Otherwise people just switch off and look at their smartphone or change channel.”

On the bookshelf there are various framed photographs of his little boy. How has being a dad changed his writing? “You know,” he smiles. “It’s made me more uncompromising.”

But Eldridge is acutely aware of the legacy of putting pen to paper. “I always have this gut feeling that I never want him to read or see my work when he’s older and feel his dad could have done better. I push myself. Although he doesn’t live with me, we spend a lot of time together, and that means like most writers who are parents, I organise when I write accordingly and use the time much more efficiently. There’s less procrastination when you’re a dad.”

Beginning is at the National Theatre’s Dorfman stage, London, until 14 November. Box office: 020-7452 3000.

Polly Findlay and David Eldridge will take part in NT Platform on Thursday 19 Oct, 6pm.

Now you know. 

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In Memory of Leaves, Natasha Langridge: “Add to the wave; we are at a point where it is sink or swim.”

100 days on and the scorched tower remains exposed and bare. The tragedy at Grenfell Tower, in which at least 80 people died, highlights the long neglect of social housing. It’s part of a bigger problem. A problem that playwright, performer & activist Natasha Langridge is keen to shine a light on.

I had a chat with the lady herself on the phone recently.

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“Grenfell is 10 minutes from where I lived – a lot of people are being treated absolutely appallingly,” she says. “The richest borough in London in one of the richest countries in the world and to be in a situation like this; thousands of empty properties. It’s unforgivable.”

Her new show ‘Memory of Leaves’ is being performed on a wide beam barge at three different London docks. Written in the wake of her home on the Wornington Green Estate in Kensington being demolished, Langridge’s monologue explores what happens to communities when they are moved from their homes. It follows her getting arrested with Occupy Democracy and volunteering in the refugee camp in Calais. The monologue is described by Langridge as ‘a love letter to neighbours and a revolutionary call to the world.’

Memory of Leaves is an impassioned monologue about love and protest,” she explains, “I originally did this show on the road I live on in an amphitheatre. I wanted to reach out to people who can relate to the fact that bulldozers that have become the London skyline. I wanted to reach boaters; that’s a whole community. I wanted to do it on North Kensington on the canal there and for people going through regeneration or people who are seeing or hearing it first-hand.”

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Natasha Langridg

Natasha is co-author of Rage and Reason: Women Playwrights on Playwriting, a powerful book exploring the craft of play-writing and the pressures of working within a male dominated environment. Does she think we have made progress when it comes to gender representation?  “It’s a lot more balanced in terms of women playwrights and there are certainly a lot more BAME playwrights. However, theatre could and should do more; in terms of who’s running the buildings and who is directing work for our nations stages,” says Langridge.

Does she think that mainstream press is doing enough to tackle serious topics within our contracting society, I ask. “The press are not using their responsibility wisely and they are not going to use it,” she explains. “They have a different agenda and that agenda is the status quo. Everybody is hungry for change. What’s different about this piece is I am talking about issues that have affected me directly. It’s a very personal piece.”

The failure by the Tories to tackle the severe housing shortage is part of an ideology to target the vulnerable. We can all make a difference, she thinks. “Ask yourself: what can you contribute? What are you contributing? Are you contributing something positive? Make a difference within your local community,” she pauses, “One of the reasons that we have allowed ourselves to be so fucked over is that we have a government who allow homeless people to sleep on the streets, ensures workers are not earning enough to live on and a political party that is dismantling our public services,” she says.

Making your own work is an excellent way to get noticed and bring your ideas to life. What is her advice for aspiring artists who have something to say in 2017? “Do what you believe in and do what is in your heart. That is what theatre needs and not necessarily clever stuff but stuff that is actually felt. It’s a difficult thing writing,” she says.

The point, for her, is that we aren’t taking the time to look out for one another. “One of the reasons is that we have lost touch with each other. We’ve been encouraged to only do well for ourselves. We’ve forgotten each other and what makes us happy and we need to make a change.”

Langridge maintains that we have to wake up. “Fight for what you believe in. Ask yourself what can you contribute? Are you contributing something positive? Add to the wave – we are at a point where it is sink or swim,” she says defiantly.

What a woman.

In Memory of Leaves Buy tickets HERE >> http://in-memory-of-leaves.natasha-langridge.com/

Meanwhile Gardens

The Fordham Gallery Barge moored at Meanwhile Gardens Grand Union Canal*

Nearest tube: Westbourne Park

Wednesday October 4th – Saturday 7th 7.30p

Camden Lock

The Fordham Gallery Barge moored at Camden Lock (Visitors Mooring) Regents Canal*

Nearest tube: Camden Town

Wednesday 11th October – Saturday 14th 7.30pm

Hackney Wick

The Fordham Gallery Barge moored at Hackney Wick White Post Lane River Lee*

Nearest overground: Hackney Wick

Wednesday 18thOctober – Saturday 21st October 7.30pm

 

 

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Simon Stephens interview: “There is something about bringing Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle to London which means a lot to me. A lot of my plays are carved out of a love for this city.”

Multi-award-winning playwright Simon Stephens is a pale giant, dressed today in dark blue jeans, a maroon shirt and a charcoal grey jacket. He listens and laughs a lot.

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Simon Stephens © Alex Rumford

We’re sitting upstairs in a quiet corner of Black’s, a members’ club in London. The setting is intimate and our talk about his new play, Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle is too. The blurb for the show reads: ‘When two strangers meet by chance amidst the bustle of a crowded London train station; their lives change forever’. The play receives its UK premiere at Wyndham’s next month and tells the story of two strangers who strike up an unlikely relationship. It stars Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham, and reunites the production team behind The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, with Stephens, Marianne Elliott and designer Bunny Christie. “Ken and Ann-Marie have a very complimentary energy that’s absolutely perfect for this play. Ken has such earth and a stillness and Ann-Marie has an edge and desire. The two of them dance around one another and it’s kind of exquisite,” he says.

The play is directed by Marianne Elliott and is the inaugural show for Elliott & Harper Productions, the company she has set up with director Chris Harper. Elliott’s many credits include Curious Incident (adapted for the stage by Stephens), War Horse and Angels in America. “I hope it sells – for them,” says Stephens, “I don’t want them to be exposed to anything. I really love them. If I’m anxious about anything, I’m anxious about the people of that calibre enjoying the success that they deserve.”

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Is he nervous? “I’m really happy. I’m not nervous. Because the play has been done before in New York,” Stephens replies. “When a play is being done for the first time your main fear is that it is shit. I kind of know that it’s not shit. It’s not a shit play. There is something about bringing Heisenberg to London which means a lot to me. A lot of my plays are carved out of a love for this city.”

We talk about his friendship with Marianne and I get a clear sense of how and why they work so well together (Simon is Godfather to her daughter and it was some time into working together that she and Stephens discovered that they were both from Stockport and that they used to get the same bus to their schools.)

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Simon Stephens and Marianne Elliott © Alex Rumford

“She’s brilliant because she’s brilliant – we have a brilliant relationship because of some deep psychic connection,” he says. “Above all of those things, she’s the hardest-working director I know.” Hard-working in a different way, he explains, from Ivo van Hove and Sean Holmes, say, who run theatres or do show after show, back-to-back in Paris or on Broadway. “Marianne refuses to go back-to-back with shows. Stephens continues. “At a time when everyone wants her, she says no to so many jobs because she needs the preparation time. I don’t know any director who prepares more than her. Heisenberg is an hour and fifteen two-hander and she has six weeks preparing it so that when she talks to the cast at the beginning of rehearsals, she speaks with more depth about the play than I have. What she’ll bring is the sense of its existential depth.”

He’s on a roll about his peers. “I’m so fucking fortunate, Carl. I’ve been so fortunate with the collaborators that I’ve worked with. Really lucky,” he says, thinking. “To work with Sean Holmes again and again, a substantial ten-year relationship. A fifteen-year relationship with Sarah Frankcom as well as the rockstar directors like Katie Mitchell, Ivo van Hove and Sebastian Nübling… It’s completely thrilling.”

There’s nothing smug about the way Simon Stephens says that, just a thankful recognition that he has done incredibly well.

I say I think his writing is often desolate but never without heart. In these uncertain times, how important is optimism? “I think Heisenberg is infused with the possibility of optimism and I think that is important. The only response to a world in peril is to be optimistic – I think pessimism is the last resort of the privileged,” he says, tucking into his artichoke soup.

“There is a difference between optimism and naivety – between optimism and jolliness. Real optimism has to consider real peril, real despair, real fear and real isolation. To deny those is just naïve but it’s about acknowledging those and finding the determination to persist.”

Rather brilliantly, there are 30,000 tickets for Heisenberg available for under £20. Delivering work to audiences at an affordable price is important to Stephens. “I’ve been a teacher all my life,” he nods. “There is nothing more important to me than the notion that theatre is not an elitist art form but that it is a democratic art form. You can make it cheaper than a lot of cinemas. You can make it cheaper than a football match. This is like watching a Champion League Football match at the cost of watching a match in the Ryman Conference.”

Heisenberg isn’t the only play keeping him occupied. Stephens’ adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull opens at the Lyric Hammersmith the day after and he has come from rehearsals to meet me. “I’m more nervous, weirdly, about The Seagull,” he admits. “I really like writing versions – it’s thrilling for me. It’s simple, it doesn’t take a massive amount of time and it’s different from play to play to play. 10 years ago, when I was working on Harper Regan and Lesley Sharp asked me to write a version of The Seagull, I knew I wasn’t able to at that time in my career. Because in my opinion, Chekhov is the best writer in the history of the world. For me, he is my tower. Do you know the Leonard Cohen song ‘Tower of Song’?” he asks.

I tell him I don’t.

“It’s a really beautiful, beautiful song. In it Cohen sings about the Tower of Song – a tower that all songwriters live in and there’s a beautiful line about Hank Williams.” Stephens quotes: “‘I said to Hank Williams: “How lonely does it get?” Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet. But I hear him laughing all night long. Oh, a hundred floors above me in the Tower of Song’.”

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He continues, “I think writers position themselves at the foot of towers and they are very specific about which towers they position themselves at the foot of. I’m sitting on ground floor of Chekhov’s Tower and he’s a hundred floors above me, laughing all night long,”

It would be easy to pin him down as a tortured artist. How does he manage ego? “I find it really confusing because there’s part of me that still thinks I’m desperately trying to hack away, trying to get it right. As I look at my career now, objectively – if I separate myself from the experience of my career – I think you’d look at it and say that it is probably the career of a successful playwright. But I don’t experience myself as being a successful playwright,” he admits, modestly.

“I think the only thing you can do is, you stay present tense and concern yourself with the work and just get the work right. This is not just for successful playwrights, I think it’s true of all playwrights,” he continues. “I think it’s actually more perilous for writers at the start of their career because they are so worried about career that they can stop worrying about the work. I can’t change anything… It took me about 10 years to get over the notion of linear improvement. All I really want to do is write a play that is different to the last one. If ever it comes close to me taking myself too seriously then my children and my wife will just take the piss out of me – so brilliantly and precisely that it’s just impossible.”

I shift the conversation to critics, specifically, Michael Billington, who we both agree gets a lot of stick from the blogosphere. “If you’re working in theatre and you can’t distinguish between Michael Billington and Quentin Letts say- or Michael Billington and Dominic Cavendish, then you’re a fucking idiot,” he says, smiling. “If you can’t acknowledge that Michael Billington is one of the most consistently thoughtful, economic, searching, knowledgeable and serious writers about theatre.”

Stephens is Artistic Associate at the Lyric Theatre and Associate Playwright at the Royal Court. Does he think there are issues with the way new work is being commissioned that need addressing in order for the next generation of playwrights to break through? “I think there are perhaps some structural issues. But the structural issues are really complicated,” he says.

“I’m old enough to remember the year 2000 and the early years of the Blair government – and the remarkable energy for the arts that that government had and the extraordinary investment that that government brought about,” he explains. “I forget the name of the report in 2000 celebrating the agency of new writing and instigating a cash injection into new writing. But within five or ten years there were more playwrights than there had ever been and they were funded and supported. There new writing groups and young writing schemes all over the country. Eight years later there was an economic collapse that we’re still reeling from and the consequences of that is a massive withdrawal of money from the arts.”

“So, we have this situation where there are four times as many playwrights and less money to inject into the productions of their plays. That’s really tricky for the well-intentioned artistic directors who have to let people down. They will, and have rejected major significant playwrights and that’s an ongoing thing. I don’t know what to do about it because we are unfortunately not governed by a government that believes in the arts. The nature of Conservatism is that it has an impulse to conserve and the one thing the arts are not interested in ever – or should never be interested in –  is conserving,” says Stephens.

Julian Fellowes is the only playwright in the world who has any vested interest in things staying the way that they are and that’s why he is a…”

Just in time his phone beeps. “That’s my timer,” he sighs. “I need to be thinking about making a move.” Another rehearsal to get to?

No, he laughs, and heads off down Dean Street to pick up his daughter from school.

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle runs at Wyndham’s Theatre from 9 October to 6 January, with previews from 3 October.

The Seagull will run at the Lyric Hammersmith from 10 October to 4 November, with previews from 3 October.

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A chat under a bridge with Howard Brenton and Sam Hodges

The Shadow Factory is set in the autumn of 1940 during the Battle of Britain and is about the devastation reigned on Southampton, the home of the Spitfire. The play is written by theatre giant Howard Brenton and directed by the ambitious director Samuel Hodges.

The NST City is part of Studio 144, a new £28m venue in Southampton’s city centre. The building will include a 450 seat main house and a 135 seat studio, as well as screening facilities, rehearsal and workshop spaces.

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Howard Brenton and Samuel Hodges (obvs)

I went along to a have a chat with director of NST Samuel Hodges and playwright Howard Brenton on  a ramp in Southampton under the Itchen Bridge for the launch of the play.

Here is what we discussed.

Me: Hello! Are you both happy with how today has gone? 

Sam: I think it’s terrific – this is the perfect place for it. It’s beautiful and historic. It feels exiting; It’s suddenly got real.

Howard: It’s amazing to see this ramp we are standing on, they built sea planes in the 20’s and 30’s here and they rolled off this ramp.

Me: How would you describe your state of mind, Mr Hodges?

Sam: My state of mind is one of cautious excitement – I think it’s always that way with any new play at this point where you’re between a final draft and beginning of rehearsals and it’s all starting to shape up. On the other hand, we are desperate to get into this new building and start playing. I suppose there are quite a few unknowns: to go into a brand-new theatre and make a piece of brand new theatre is double unknown.

Howard: Well it’s great standing on this spot – I remember in the beginning I said yes to writing this play in a pub not far from here… Now we are standing on the actual site with the thing written and we are all ready to go.

Me: Is that how you get all your commissions, Sam? In the pub?

Sam: Yes. Absolutely.

Me: How would you describe The Shadow Factory in a nutshell?

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Sam: It’s a story about the community, it’s a story about the city and it’s a story that they will not have heard. I think as a theatre experience what they will get is something very unusual. Something with lots of design ,with projection, with flying bits ,with big community chorus, with movement and with music. I would hope it feel like something almost immersive.

Howard: I hope they will be entertained. This is a story of local people, a story that is not widely known, as Sam says. Shadow Factory is about people who did something extraordinary. It’s not to be sentimental about it because this is a very, very tough time. A lot of people thought they were going to lose the war. Nevertheless, they achieved this; 6 weeks from the factory being bombed – planes were being made in bits in the back streets. So, if people could do that 70 years ago, if we have to face a crisis in this country, and God knows we may well. What can we do? It can surprise us what we could do. I’d like people to take that thought out of the theatre.

Me: Is there anything that either of you would like to add?

Sam: Um. No. That’s’ fine.

The Shadow Factory runs at the NST City, Southampton from 16 February to 2 March.

 

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Guest blog: Ray Rackham: “Going Beyond the Rainbow”

Ray Rackham

Ray Rackham

Picture it, 25th December, nineteen-eighty-something. Whilst the rest of my family were either falling asleep in front of the television, or arguing over a rather heated game of Trivial Pursuit; the pre-pubescent, spoilt, incredibly precocious younger version of me was watching my increasingly frustrated father attempt get my Christmas present to work; a portable colour television. They were all the rage in nineteen-eighty-something, and I was the only child on Middleton Street who had one.

After what seemed like an eternity; white noise was replaced by a distant sound of strings, and the television static faded to a grainy, almost sepia hue. I was devastated. I wanted full on “Goonies” inspired, He-Man and She-Ra technicolour. What I had was a young girl, wandering around a barn yard, in black-and-white (my tastes were not as developed to differentiate the sepia), singing about all the world being a hopeless jumble. Christmas was, for me at least, ruined.

But then, I heard the now incredibly familiar Over the Rainbow, with its bold, opening leap straight up an octave from Middle C, juxtaposed with darker, underlying chords to offset the apparent schmaltz of the melody, and I was hooked.

“Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high, there’s a land that I’ve heard of once in a lullaby”.

Transfixed with that Christmas day memory, I continued through my childhood, and very much into adulthood, looking for that technicolour fantasy land, “where troubles melt like lemon drops”. I believe I found it, in the many school plays, attempts at amateur dramatics, and every time I got up to sing a song (or, as my grandmother would say, “do a turn”). My very own technicolour was to come from Fresnel lanterns, home-made star cloths and smoke machines. From the theatre!

Fast forward to two-thousand-and-something. I had just recently closed my production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins at the Pleasance Theatre, and had just accepted the position as Artistic Director of the soon to be formed London Theatre Workshop. I was also trying my luck at being a burgeoning librettist lyricist (a passion that resulted in my contribution to the musical Apartment 40C), and translating a 1980s film to stage (a passion that resulted in very little!). One might safely say that I had found the place where happy little bluebirds fly, and it was in the professional theatre. Having been invited to a very ‘Sloaney’ dinner party, where I was being my usual self, dominating the cocktail conversation (like a cross between Woody Allen, Liberace and James Corden), I found myself lucky enough to be sat next to an elderly producer who had worked on the movie “I Could Go on Singing”.

Judy! By Ray Rackham

“Of course, it was Judy’s last movie”

“Judy who?”

“Are you kidding me?”

This wonderfully caustic and acerbic lady then proceeded to teach me, chapter and verse, everything and anything a self-respecting theatre geek should know about the late, great, Judy Garland.

“Oh, you mean Liza Minnelli’s mum!”

She didn’t talk to me for the rest of the evening.

But what she did do was instil an absolute hunger to find out more about this deeply troubled, yet gorgeously triumphant human being, who was taken tragically too soon just around the corner from where I had been dining. On my way home, I rather coincidentally stumbled across the mews house on Cadogan Lane, where over forty years earlier Judy had died. And by coincidence I meant that I had jumped in a cab and had asked the driver to take me there. Even in the romanticised setting of the glow of a London street lamp, and my possibly having had one too many cherry brandies at dinner, it was clear that the tiny mews house had seen better days. The paintwork on the door was peeling off, I remember some brown tape had been placed across an upstairs window, and a solitary Christmas bauble could be seen from another, even though it was the middle of April. Overall, the place seemed to exist in a world of faded glamour. Forgotten and unloved. The garage door was covered in hardboard, as if there was some kind of building work going on behind it. Maybe the new owners were restoring it to its former glory? Maybe there has been a break-in? The overall shabbiness of the building lead me to believe that the former was implausible, and the latter inevitable.

I felt an overwhelming feeling of sadness. Where was the blue plaque? Where were the garlands of flowers, or cards of heartfelt tribute? Where was the love? I may have been forty or more years late to the memorial, but where were the fans? I’d never felt sadder for someone I didn’t know, and never more so alone. As I started to leave, a faint glimmer of light caught my eye, reflecting from the shine of the London street lamp. It came from the temporary hardboard garage door. On second glance, I realised that scrawled on the door, in purple glitter pen, were the words “if happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why can’t I?”

Upon further inspection, it became clear that every inch of hardboard had a comment scrawled across in.

“We love you Judy”

“JG – always in my heart”

“I still believe in the rainbow”

Immediately, I started to think of my own place in the world, my love of the theatre; the fantasy, technicolour world where you can forget your troubles and get happy. I believe in that world; and a huge part of the Judy Garland narrative, however you dress it, represents that. It was at that moment that I began to see Judy not a person whose sole legacy to the entertainment industry was of trouble, heartache and pain; but of skill, talent and determination, and most importantly of love.

So what if in her later years she cracked on that ambitious leap straight up the octave from Middle C in her signature song? Were the countless tales of pills and liquor all that was actually interesting about this incredibly beguiling woman? Why do we, almost a part of our DNA, like to wallow in the pain, when there remains so much to celebrate? It was at that moment I decided to write a play about Judy. I had for many months been working on a piece about stardom, and by the time I had got home that night the two ideas had morphed into one.

And now, that same show opens at The Arts Theatre in London’s West End, on May 16th, 2017. Having been workshopped and produced at the London Theatre Workshop in December 2015, where I am still, very proudly, Artistic Director; and then at Southwark Playhouse in 2016; it makes me very happy to say that in 2017 Judy Garland is back in town, with three actresses playing her, at the same time, a stone’s throw away from the Talk of the Town; where the actual Judy played her last London gig. I certainly never expected my show to go from 60 seats to the West End in eighteen months. Some might say it’s a bit like a Mickey and Judy film. Sometimes little bluebirds do fly.

I hope to see you there.

Oh, and the Liza Minnelli gag found its way into the first draft, and has been there ever since.

PS: Cadogan House that Ray mentions in the article has since been torn down.

FIVE WEEK WEST END SEASON SUMMER 2017
Venue: Arts Theatre,
6-7 Great Newport St, London WC2H 7JB
Dates: Tues, 16 th May to Sat, 17 th June 2017
Time: 7.30pm (Thurs & Sat Matinees – 2.30pm)
(extra Matinees Tues 6 th & 13 th June)
Box Office: 020 7836 8463
Online: artstheatrewestend.co.uk

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GUEST BLOG: Emma Manton: “Our job as theatre practitioners is to tell these stories and remember to imagine ourselves in their position – to practice empathy.”

Emma Manton
Emma Manton

Emma Manton

In 2014, I was cast in the RSC’s Winter Season, which involved spending 6 months in Stratford-upon-Avon. Fired up by the beauty of the place and having achieve a few good night’s sleep, away from my 6-year-old son, I agreed to join playwright Michelle Terry on a 2-mile run. I had no idea where that run would lead.

In the summer of 2015, the media was full with harrowing images of refugees washing up on the beaches of the Mediterranean. I wanted to find a way to help – so I contacted the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and, before I knew it, I’d agreed to run the London Marathon for them. Having no experience of fundraising, I called a few friends and realised that people were desperate to find a way to help the unfolding refugee crisis.

I curated Moving Stories in response to the current global refugee crisis and it was first performed at the National Theatre in 2016. David Edgar, Richard Bean, Phil Porter, Michelle Terry and other incredible playwrights wrote and donated material and 36 actors gave up time to perform. We raised nearly £15,000.

Since then, the danger and persecution faced by refugees around the world has only worsened, particularly in the light of Donald Trump’s postponement of the US refugee programme. The distress that the fear surrounding the confusion of ‘refugee’ and ‘terrorist’ runs the risk of blinding us to the simple fact that the vast majority of people displaced by wars are fleeing the same people that scare us in the West. We see the huge numbers and not the thousands of individual stories.

Nevertheless, our job as theatre practitioners is to tell these stories and remember to imagine ourselves in their position – to practice empathy. When we see the world from other people’s point of view, we are more able to work together to find answers.

To quote UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees) Ambassador Neil Gaiman, ‘It’s not just about financial support, although funds are desperately needed and every donation is deeply appreciated (please do donate!), it’s also about staying informed and helping tell the refugee story – to friends, to family, at school, at work, around the kitchen table.’

On Sunday 26th February at 4pm, I’m calling on you to join us at the Theatre Royal Haymarket and stand in solidarity with refugees. You’ll be treated to brilliantly funny and moving plays and some new writing for good measure. Also, Great British Bake-off’s Mel Giedroyc will be hosting and joined on stage by a host of British Theatre stars, including Rufus Hound (One Man, Two Guvnors), Denise Gough (People, Places, Things), Andy Nyman (Ghost Stories), Adjoa Andoh (Doctor Who), Lisa Dillon (Cranford), Edward Bennett (Photograph 51), Anna-Jane Casey (Billy Elliot), Caroline Sheen (Mary Poppins) and Evelyn Hoskins (Sound of Music Live).

See you there, folks!

Emma Manton