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Playground Theatre, Peter Tate Interview: “Established and emerging artists will always be free to come here and try out new ideas.”

Back in 2001 Playground Theatre, London was founded as a space for artists to explore creative ideas, without being a fully-fledged venue. After restoration, with a budget of £270,000, the Playground Theatre is opening as a venue with a seating capacity of up to 200 with a flexible stage. This new dynamic theatre is in Ladbroke Grove and just ten minutes from Latimer Road tube station and it was recently announced that the Playground has been nominated for Peter Brook/Royal Court Theatre Support Award 2017.

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Peter Tate in rehearsals.

Peter Tate, who originally found the space, is co-director alongside Anthony Biggs, former artistic director of the Jermyn Street Theatre. The Playground’s premiere production, Picasso, stars Tate. He has had an extensive career as both an actor and businessman. Previously seen regularly at the National Theatre in leading roles whilst, at the same time, running successful commercial businesses.

The softly spoken 66-year-old explains that everything is on track. “Rehearsals are going well – one never wants to say too much at this stage,” he says. “It’s coming together really well. We are currently in technical rehearsals – it’s fine –  the actresses are great. Fingers crossed.”

What are the biggest trials of realising this ambitious venture? “The biggest challenge – and it is completely self-imposed: opening a new venue and this production at *about* the same time,” he says, laughing. “The fit out of the theatre has converged with the opening of the venue. Whilst rehearsing for Picasso I have been involved in helping to create the theatre at the same time. So, it is all hands-on deck!”

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As an industry, it is a miserable time and it seems potent that the inaugural production focusses on the life of Pablo Picasso, arguably the greatest artist of the 20th century but one who has been characterised as a misogynist. Tate is all too aware of the timing whilst working with a female heavy cast. “We have this Harvey Weinstein thing coming out of the closet and of course Picasso had a reputation for that kind behaviour… We are not sanitising what it is but we are very conscious that the situation is happening. Some of the material is challenging but the cast and creative team are all committed and responsive.”

He is, though, justly proud of what he has achieved. “Although we had a lot of success with the projects we developed here, there were many projects that were worthy of going into the public arena were left on the shop floor,” he says, “so now we can get that work off the ground and in front of audiences.”

How is The Playground different from other off-west end spaces? “We are very artist driven – we are not producer driven. I really want this place to be a home for artists to come here to use the space and knock an idea around. We take a fairly unique place in the London scene; an unconditional approach to collaborating. The reason for this theatre really is to create a place without pre-judgement and nowhere really has this ethos.”

The Playground will seek no charitable or government funding: investors paid for the building and initial production costs, but from now on it is meant to run on its revenues. Tate has a firm handle on proceedings. “Obviously now there is a huge amount of money going out now,” he admits, “there are five potential income streams’ and one of the aims is to be absolutely self-sufficient. We have a vibrant café bar, ticket sales, space rentals, one-off events that we are pushing and we will eventually have classical music concerts and a cinema.”

What sets this venture apart is the inclusive and ambitious plans for artist development, theatrical experiment and how deeply it’s plans are rooted in the local community. “I’d love the word to be out there that we are establishing this as a home for artists,” says Tate.

“There is a sense of home here. I’d like to say established and emerging artists will always be free to come and try out new ideas here.”

Picasso runs at The Playground from 5 November to 25 November, with previews from 1 November.

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Young Frankenstein: do we all make our own monsters?

The gender roles in Young Frankenstein raise huge questions around our own collusion as audiences and Mel Brooks’ musical comedy starring Ross Noble, Hadley Fraser, Summer Strallen and Lesley Joseph is ruffling feathers.

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The background is that, in Natasha Tripney’s two-star review for The Stage she makes her case very pertinently about how certain attitudes towards women feed in to a culture that is damaging to women. “You could argue that I’m taking things too seriously, that this show is basically benign and just out to make its audience laugh, but this stuff matters. It adds up. It contributes to a culture in which men in positions of power, movie producers say, can treat women like they exist solely for their titillation and amusement. It’s damaging – and it’s just not funny anymore.

Similarly, Alice Saville wrote a piece for Exeunt (Let’s not forget that Tripney co-founded Exeunt) examining mass culture and sexism within the industry, but misses a trick of weighing the best of the present against the worst of the past. Saville too seems to think that the Guardian’s Chief Theatre critic is conspiring against women: “If the most common way to deal with women who call out sexism and harassment is silence, a close second is this time-honoured strategy of casting people who object to rape jokes and sexism as humourless. Michael Billington’s Guardian review seems to do so, too, albeit in a weird coded way – “This may not be a show for sensitive souls whose idea of a jolly evening is sitting at home reading Walter Pater. For the rest of us, who cherish popular theatre’s roots in laughter and song, it offers two-and-a-half hours of time-suspending pleasure.”

Good grief.

This recurring debate speaks volumes – and prompts this writer’s irony-meter to explode – especially when Young Frankenstein is a musical from a lost vaudevillian universe where the women were leggy and offence was given (and taken) in the spirit it was intended. This all happened in a time pre ‘Trial By Social Media.’

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Can the imagery of gender stereotypes, now so deeply carved on our brains, prevent us from looking beyond the roles assigned to us? I found the elements in question to be a subversive use of entertainment as a means of consciousness-raising. This show is portraying a period, with humour and accuracy.

I felt uncomfortable at times. But isn’t that the point?

Post-Weinstein, I was hyper-aware about my own gaze at the females on stage; but the performances in question here are very funny and subtly ridiculing that.

Even when Hadley Fraser lecherously embraces his fiancé and she pushes his tongue back into his mouth, singing ‘Please Don’t Touch Me’ – I couldn’t but applaud what in other hands might seem tasteless. It could be argued that the show is an inappropriate artefact and should be *at the very least* seriously reconstructed or consigned to the archives. Or, how about not watching it?

Amid the frenzy, we should also pause to remember the Mel Brooks’ heyday as a filmmaker was in the 1960s and 1970s, when sociopath Richard Nixon was in office. Brooks is one of the greatest comedians of the twentieth century whose work is slapstick, irreverent and certainly not polemic.

It’s true that some genres, such as comedy, have thrived on dementedly sexualised and explicitly demeaning imagery of leggy women and ‘funny-sexy’ for decades, but this old-fashioned approach should not represent a line being crossed. I think it’s slightly naïve to beat up the past with the stick of the present.

We know now that sex and sexuality is always going to be part of theatre, and always should be.

But that’s not to say it’s all plain sailing…

After the show I asked ten humans, who identified as female, whether they found anything in Young Frankenstein to be a) offensive or b) misogynistic. Interestingly, they all said no. One woman told me: “I am actually pretty sick and tired of all this right-on idiocy. I have three daughters and I have raised them as independent women. We have loved every minute of it.”

Another woman that I was sat next to told me: “I didn’t want a female Doctor Who – but here we are. I don’t need approval from anybody to enjoy the theatre, I don’t read reviews because the writers often bring their own agenda.”

Nevertheless, just because the ten women did not have a problem with the content of the musical as a misogyny-fest does not mean that no female humans will have a problem with the representation of women on stage.

If a lost British musical was unearthed tomorrow featuring a cartoon monster raping a woman in a cave as a term of abuse, would Cameron Mackintosh commission it, or would he censor it? He’d censor it.

Perhaps there should have been a 2017 sensibility to Young Frankenstein, in much the same way that racist elements are removed from repeats of 1970’s sitcoms on daytime TV. Arguments that “they’ve been playing it uncensored for decades” are irrelevant: society moves on, which is why slavery is a crime, marriage is equal, homosexuality is not a crime and why women are allowed to vote.

Obviously, the history of patriarchy is extensive and entrenched. So, do we remake these stories and tell them differently if we are going to change our own culture and its attitudes towards women? Progress on justice for women is slow, but it’s happening. Young Frankenstein has been directed with aplomb by Broadway’s finest director-choreographer, Susan Stroman. What’s that? A female director, in the West End.

Whether it is cynical, misogynistic, artistic, all three or none, perhaps this will prove a cultural blip, a peculiar aberration like the huge success of the Take That musical: The Band that theatre fans in the future will look back on as nothing more than a snapshot of pop culture in 2017.

But it is hard not to feel that in 2077, people are more likely to look back on the fuss around Young Frankenstein in the way we now regard the reaction, 50 years ago, to the uproar of ‘Springtime for Hitler’ featuring goose-stepping chorus girls and choreographed swastikas: as rather quaint.

I salute Young Frankenstein for sticking a bonfire under good taste and scorching political correctness. Theatre is full of surprises. All we can do, as audiences, is say it how we see it and respond accordingly because there’s nothing more miserable than silence.

We all make our own monsters and I don’t think that anybody associated with Young Frankenstein is one.

Anyway, there is something rotten in the world if you need approval to laugh at a Mel Brooks musical.

Go and see it for yourself.

N.B. I am, though, still upset that there wasn’t a gay bar in Transylvania.

Young Frankenstein runs at the Garrick Theatre until September 2018.

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UK Theatre Awards 2017: A blow by blow account

12.30pm I arrive at the Guildhall, London and head for the drinks reception in the Crypts. It’s quite posh. I have a glass of champagne and bump into theatre critic Mark Shenton. “Hello! I’m surprised you managed to fit this in between all your meetings,” he says, laughing. We have a quick gossip.

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Mark Shenton

12.45pm I mingle and bump into critics Lyn Gardner and Fiona Mountford, which is nice. “What on earth are you doing here!?,” Lyn says. I wouldn’t miss it for the world – congratulations, Mrs. I say. Bless.

12.55pm A man from Scottish Ballet asks me to take his photo around forty times – because the lighting is not flattering. I oblige. Great days.

1.00pm Everyone is having lunch. Here is the menu.

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(I was afforded a cheese roll, a banana and a Kit Kat. Beggars can’t be choosers.

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Guildhall, City of London: The Great Hall.

1.30pm The guy from Scottish Ballet appears. “I need somewhere to throw up my gum,” he says to me and the chap from UK Theatre. Words fail me. I suggest a bin around the corner.

2.00pm It’s starting. I think.

2.05pm Oh here comes Gemma Bodinetz who has won the Best Director award for artistic directorship of Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse’s new repertory season. “I’m looking forward to the whole thing now: I can get drunk,” she says. Amazing.

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Gemma Bodinetz

2.08pm “Yayyy Gemma!” Shrinking violet Sam Hodges is gate crashing my interview, which is a bit annoying. Oh well, he’s charismatic.

2.14pm Anyway, why is today so important to Gemma? “I’m absolutely thrilled…  It’s taken me 14 years to win this award. It’s a very important thing for us as an organisation,” she states.

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Samuel Hodges chatting away

2.16pm Let’s have a quick chat with Nuffield Southampton Theatres Sam Hodges then. He has just picked up the Renee Stepham Award for Best Presentation of Touring Theatre for Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox. Why is today so important for him and this production, I ask. “It’s a massive deal; it was a glorious show. We’d never done anything on this scale and arguably we shouldn’t have – luckily our board backed this decision fully and this is the icing on the cake,” he says, smiling.

2.18pm I lose the thread of what’s going on and before I know it along comes actor Joseph Millson who has won Best Performance in a Play. What is it about regional theatre that is sexy? “I am hugely devoted to the supporting of local and regional theatres; it saved my life when I grew up in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “Even if it hadn’t doesn’t make you an actor – it gives young people such an independence.” He continues. “There’s something so individual and so much expression. If everyone just bought one ticket a year at their local theatre then everybody could reap the benefits.”

2.25pm I have a glass of white wine. 7/10.

2.30pm Sharon Duncan-Brewster has deservedly won Best Supporting Performance for A Streetcar Named Desire at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre. “A lot of people do not venture out to do any work outside of London, so when I was asked to be in Streetcar I thought the only role I could play is the negro woman,” she says, candidly. What does this win mean to her? “Every city or town that I go perform in, there are people who look like me in the theatre and its time they saw themselves represented on stage,” she says. “I would love to see more of the amazing diverse work happening out in regional theatre coming into London,” she pauses and has a little cry. We have a hug.

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Sharon Duncan-Brewster

2.41pm I run to the toilet and bump into West End Producer Nica Burns(!) She looks fierce in a white gown- I am too scared to talk to her, which is a shame.

2.45pm Best Touring Production went to The Who’s Tommy, which was co-produced by New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich and Ramps on the Moon. The two organisations also received the award for Promotion of Diversity for their groundbreaking work in the inclusion and integration of deaf and disabled individuals. Here comes the Former Artistic Director of Theatre Royal Stratford East, Kerry Michael. What more needs to be done on the diversity front, going forward? “We need continue making inclusive show because they are so exciting – we’ve got to keep winning awards which aren’t just about inclusion but are about high-quality art,” he replies. Indeed.

3.00pm There is a break. Everyone has a chat, dessert and more wine.

3.25pm Sheffield Theatres’ production of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, which will open at London’s Apollo Theatre in November, wins Best Musical Production. John McCrea, who plays the eponymous role of Jamie, won the award for Best Performance in a Musical. Here come the boys.

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Everybody’s Talking About Jamie lads

3.30pm I have a quick photo with John McCrea who is wearing a rather fetching scarf indoors. ‘Trendy’.

3.34pm Personality vortex Freddie Fox appears with Playwright Sir David Hare. Hare is the recipient of the Gielgud Award for Excellence in the Dramatic Arts from The Shakespeare Guild. We have a photo (I’m really very shy) and I collar Freddie for a chat. “Stories need to be told everywhere all over the country and the world. Not just London. It’s a chance to be heard and seen and celebrated – it clearly means an awful lot to many people,” he says.

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Freddie Fox and Sir David Hare

3.40pm I decide to have another glass of wine. ‘Lol’.

4.00pm Lyn Gardner is this year’s recipient of the Outstanding Contribution to British Theatre award and so actual Emma Rice is here to introduce her. That’s pretty amazing. The whole thing feels quite exciting now.

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4.03pm “A critic being honoured by the theatre industry? John Osborne once suggested most of you are supposed to feel towards people like me the way: “a lamp-post feels about dogs.”” Gardner says, which gets a big laugh. She continues. “If you want to see theatre’s future, then get on a train.” The whole place erupts into applause. Inspirational.

4.10pm Lyn Gardner walks up to me clutching her award. I ask her how would she describe her state of mind? “Discombobulated,” she says. Why is this annual event so significant for the sector, I enquire. “Quite simply, too often regional theatre is not as celebrated as it should be. Regional theatre is a thing in itself – it is not simply a training ground or somewhere where people begin their careers until they move to London. It’s where the vast majority of the population live,” she says, emphatically. She’s got a point. Also, Surely she should get an OBE soon – Billington has one.

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Emma Rice and Lyn Gardner

4.12pm Emma Rice looks uncomfortable and our eyes meet. As someone who is moving forward with a regional company (Wise Children), why do you think regional theatre should be celebrated, I ask quickly. She smiles, enigmaticly. “At Kneehigh – we lived by the Joan Miró quote “To be universal, you also have to be local” – you find communities with stories to tell and friends that they want to tell them with. That’s integrity and that’s the real deal,” she says.

4.15pm What a day. The ceremony concludes and I go and find somewhere to eat a burger.

The end.

Find out more about UK Theatre at UKTheatre.org

UK THEATRE AWARDS 2017 WINNERS

The Renee Stepham Award For Best Presentation Of Touring Theatre

Nuffield Southampton Theatres for the world premiere touring musical production of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox

Best Show for Children and Young People

The Snow Queen, New Vic Theatre

Best Director

Gemma Bodinetz, Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse new repertory season

Best Touring Production

The Who’s Tommy, New Wolsey Theatre and Ramps on the Moon

Best Supporting Performance

Sharon Duncan-Brewster, A Streetcar Named Desire, Royal Exchange Theatre

Best Performance in a Play

Joseph Millson, The Rover, Royal Shakespeare Company

Best New Play

Narvik by Lizzie Nunnery

Theatre Employee Of The Year

Jane Claire, English Touring Theatre and Liz Leck, Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre Trust

Clothworkers’ Theatre Award

Derby Theatre

Best Design

Jon Bausor, The Grinning Man, Bristol Old Vic

Achievement in Dance

Scottish Ballet for the European premiere of Crystal Pite’s striking one-act ballet Emergence

Promotion of Diversity

New Wolsey Theatre and Ramps on the Moon for their groundbreaking work in the inclusion and integration of deaf and disabled individuals

Achievement in Opera

Scottish Opera, Pelléas And Mélisande

Gielgud Award

David Hare

Best Performance in a Musical

John McCrea, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Sheffield Theatres

Best Musical Production

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Sheffield Theatres

UK’s Most Welcoming Theatre 2017 with Smooth Radio

The Mill at Sonning

Achievement in Marketing/Audience Development

Scottish Ballet for its Digital Season in April 2017

Outstanding Contribution To British Theatre 2017

Lyn Gardner

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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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Director, Adam Lenson: “I’m all about musicals that push boundaries. Music is such an important tool for change.”

Director Adam Lenson is all about expanding the form of musical theatre.I believe the new British musical is going through a good time. But I also think it’s important to do bold and experimental musicals as well,” he tells me cheerfully.

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Director Adam Lenson in rehearsals.

“I’m all about musicals that push boundaries. Music is such an important tool for change,” he says.

Lenson has tackled Ryan Scott Oliver’s 35MM: A Musical Exhibition’ at The Other Palace his fourth musical in six months – a song cycle that is inspired by Broadway photographer Matthew Murphy’s photos. The show contains 15 songs based on 15 photographs. The show cleverly weaves a musical together thematically. So why 35 MM? “I tend to seek out work that is a little bit more complicated and thoughtful or maybe difficult,” he pauses. “I think people think of musicals as fun or accessible and easy; I tend to look for projects that have a little bit of friction, whether its intricacy or what is traditional.”

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35 MM: A Musical Exhibition at The Other Palace, Studio.

“With 35 MM, there are no rules. Just songs. Ryan has actively set out to make a piece that is a challenge for a director – you have a choice – I’ve always aspired to stage work that is unusual. As the director, I’ve tried to give location and identity to each of the songs so there is cumulative power to the songs.”

For Lenson, who has spent several years building his profile through the traditional path of assistant director roles and making projects happen, the changes have been gradual. “Directing is a job made up of a lot of skill and a lot of things: managing actors, working efficiently with a technical team, bringing people together to make a piece of integrated work,” he says.

“I assisted for a long time which I think was a huge benefit. I got to nick the bits of really good directors I like and bend them in a shape that works for me John Doyle’s expressionistic style I had always aspired to find my work. I worked a lot with Terry Johnson and he is a forensic playwright. I discovered a lot about text and caring about acting through choreograph expressionism. The biggest challenge is showing people that you can direct, lately I’ve been trying to make my own work rather than waiting around to be offered it.”

It’s no real shock that Adam has found a home at the new musical venue, The Other Palace. Lenson believes that the venue has a big part to play in the continuing revolution driving new and experimental musicals. “It’s probably no surprise that I’ve ended up working there!” He laughs.

“I believe the new British musical is going through a good time. But I also think it’s important to do bold but experimental musicals as well. The exciting thing for me about The Other Palace is it is an establishment sign of a growing commitment to developing new musicals.”

How does he manage his workload when thinking about his next wave of jobs?My brother is a management consultant, he often likens it to re-fuelling the plane while flying it,” he says drily. “I’m just constantly suggesting things to people and meeting people from all disciplines: writers, producers and actors, until I have the right combination of things.”

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35 MM: A MUSICAL EXHIBITION is at The Other Palace, London, until 30 September.

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Guest blog, Jamie Eastlake: “Someone somewhere can help. Theatre N16 will survive. It has to.”

Jamie Eastlake

Jamie Eastlake

  • 178  PRODUCTIONS
  • 132 Theatre Companies on risk free deals
  • 1500 Artists
  • 140 Directors
  • 110 New Writers
  • 17 Technicians
  • 200 first credits for actors cvs
  • 25 Actors on Equity contracts for in house productions
  • 28,000 People through the doors and rising
  • 11 BSL performances
  • 3 cheap Rehearsal spaces
  • 42 Number of productions transferred

Theatre N16 has filled a gap in the industry. I’m not saying there aren’t models like ours. However there’s not enough of them. There’s always a debate about  class divide in the arts and the lack of accessibility for so many different individuals, females, BAME actors and producers with not a pot to piss in. N16 was always about giving hope to these people. It sounds proper wanky but I genuinely think we have achieved this.

We’re looking for a new home. One that we can set the foundations up for years to come. We’ve been extremely unlucky so far. It was the perfect space for us. Times were very tough to start. Because I was desperate to secure somewhere our initial agreement was a bit of an odd one. We had to prove to management that we were going to be a worthy asset. This meant programming theatre Sundays- Thursdays and then on a weekend giving the space back to the pub to hold parties. This wasn’t just giving back the space. This was completely de-rigging it and taking down set. If we had a three week run of a show they’d have to do three get outs. It was crazy. No matter what has been thrown against us we’ve overcome it. It didn’t take us long to prove to be a a valuable asset and secure 7 days a week to allow us to offer a more comfortable operation for theatre companies.

My dream move would be to secure a stand alone property. Somewhere where we can run a bar at the same time as the theatre. A place where we can make revenue to support even more companies and artists. We’ve already got the business model planned out from our shortlist for the space in Streatham.  I’m sure there’s people running spaces out there who are sick of what they do, they could be the people who answers our prayer. We’re working on a patron plan that will see us having a bit of leverage in the bank. This will allow us to get the best possible space we can get. This is the dream model. If a cracking pub space in a great area on a great deal came about we’d love to talk it through. Pub theatre is very special to me. I love having a pint, seeing a show then going downstairs to catch the second half of a footy match.

What this call to arms represents is hope. I’m blown away so far my all the messages and people crying out that someone  somewhere can help. Theatre N16 will survive. It has to.

Watch the documentary about when we opened in Balham. I think it sums up everything about us.

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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.