Highlights from September 2017

My highlights this month comprise a play and two TV comedies – unusual for me.

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I saw Thebes Land at the Arcola early in the month – I had heard great things about it when it was first produced last year. I missed it then so had no intention of doing so again. And I’m so glad I did see it, a properly theatrical ride, featuring two astonishing performances. I’m not saying anything more than that because I think if you go to see it (and you should – you’ve until 7 October) it’s best to know literally nothing – have no expectations. That was how I saw it and it was all the better for the surprise.

p05b8x1rNext the very brilliant Quacks, a BBC Two comedy following the progress of four young medical pioneers in the daring and wild days of Victorian medicine. Go for Rory Kinnear stay for Lydia Leonard, Tom Basden and Matthew Baynton not to mention James Wood’s scorching script. I had high expectations from the writer of Rev and they were exceeded. Brilliant stuff – I do hope it gets a second series (I’ve already watched the initial six episodes twice!)

Finally Channel 4’s Back. Another cracking cast fronted by Mitchell and Webb with the additional and delightful comedy stylings of Olivia Poulet, Penny Downie and Louise Brealy. And Simon Blackwell’s writing – sublime, the one-liners had me cackling.

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October brings Dido at the RSC, Unknown Island at the Gate and Beowulf at the Unicorn… exciting.

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Highlights from August 2017

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Another month another festival (lucky me!): in August – Edinburgh. Here two of my highlights were consumed. The third back in London – all three this month are plays (again).

First up, This Restless House at the Lyceum in Edinburgh. This is technically three plays, as it is Zinnie Harris’s genius reworking of The Orestia. She makes adapting look easy and avoids the usual pitfalls of trying to be too up to the minute, or overly reverential. Instead we get a haunting  and compelling play for today about the sins of the parents being visited on the children, and in Dominic Hall’s ballsy production all the elements are perfectly in tune: performances, music, design, lighting – all mesmerising – I was broken afterwards and I won’t forget it. If you can get to the Citizens in Glasgow to see it before it closes (on 9 September) you must. I really hope this one gets further life and comes south of the border.

Next the beautiful, theatrical Nassim, which I saw at the Traverse in a Bush production. I won’t say much about this as the surprise of the performance is what makes it – for audience and performer as it is someone different every time. And like the audience they have no idea what they are in for.  A funny, touching piece about ‘home’ and what that means, catch it (or something else by the excellent Iranian writer Nassim Soleimanpour) at the Bush in London as part of a retrospective of his work in mid-September.

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Finally, back in London town, I had the delight of seeing Lions and Tigers at the Globe. To my shame I’d never been to the Sam Wannamaker playhouse before this – what a beautiful space it is. And I’m so glad I discovered it through Tanika Gupta’s engaging and relevant play about Indian independence and freedom fighter Dinesh Gupta in a compelling production by Pooja Ghai. The performances are everything in this intimate, candlelit setting and the actors were superb, telling the story with gusto and passion.  It continues until 16 September and you’d be a fool to miss it.

Highlights from July 2017

It goes without saying that my plays The Scar Test (at Soho) and How it Ended (at The Bush) were massive highlights in July. But it was a month where I was entirely spoiled because it culminated with a trip to the Avignon Theatre Festival where there were delights galore.

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We travelled by Eurostar *DIRECT* (this was a wonder) and as we arrived at the walled city I knew this was the start of a love affair for me. It’s the most beautiful place. Full of inventive theatre spaces. Three shows that blew me away while there were:

Les Yeux de Taqqi

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A beautiful children’s show based on a traditional Inuit story about a little boy who can’t see but goes on a quest to find his eyes. Three performers breathed life into some beautiful puppets – it was such a slick and professional piece of work and the storytelling so adept that even with my poor French I not only understood, but laughed and cried at the tale of Taqqi.

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Tout Neuf

Another children’s show with three performers: this gem has no words only music and sounds. The main focus is what looks like a large wooden orange on a stand in the middle of the stage. Each segment is then opened to reveal an unusual musical instrument which is discovered and then played – falteringly at first but then with aplomb – by the hugely talented cast. Children and adults alike were mesmerised with this charming show.

The Great Tamer

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The Great Tamer is a show conceived and directed by Dimitris Papaioannou for 11 performers. It is a strange dreamlike scape of bodies and ideas, moments and magic. There’s no plot or story per se but by god it’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen in the theatre – ever. At the risk of sounding pretentious I’ll admit to finding myself crying half way through as I realised that I could still be THAT excited by a piece of theatre after 20 years of theatregoing. I can’t say much more than that. Or I don’t want to – I want you to go and see it yourself because my description will never be as good as the real thing. It’s on a world tour currently but criminally is not coming to London. If you are curious check out the trailer but it’s not for the faint hearted and contains lots of nudity. You can see it here: https://vimeo.com/221573027

Boy what a show – I’m still recovering. Hopefully I’ll be fully recovered before my next Festival – Edinburgh at the end of the month…

Highlights from June 2017

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As well as rehearsing for my play The Scar Test (which runs at Soho Theatre until 22 July) I also found further cultural satisfaction (blessed are the babysitters).

Firstly a reading at the stunning Mosaic Rooms in Earls Court of the brilliant Hassan Abdulrazzak’s new play Maroon. A thought-provoking, engrossing play dealing with tough themes in an incredible entertaining way. And what actors! Robin Soans, Sirine Saba, Jaz Deol and Seven K Greene. Can’t wait to see a full production of that one.

Then I went to Anatomy of a Suicide at the Royal Court (pictured at top). What a show. It deals with suicide but also post natal depression. What I loved so much was the way the fragmented form of the play disoriented the audience and made your brain work in a strange new way much as I imagine such a mental health condition might. The performances were stunning (Kate O’Flynn and Adelle Leonce so intense and watchable; Hattie Morahan and Paul Hilton – just astonishing, gut wrenching as they desperately tried and failed to communicate with one another). Katie Mitchell’s directing is masterful (of course). I’m still reeling from that one and expect I will be for some time to come.

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And then a telly. Jimmy McGovern’s Broken. The other half had to force me – I suspected it would be a misery-fest and I couldn’t really face it. But after some gentle persuasion I girded my loins and put on iPlayer. And I’m delighted I did.

It’s a state of the nation piece, masterfully written and performed – not just by key figure Sean Bean but the supporting cast are incredible. And what makes me even happier is that in every single episode there was a brilliant actor who I have worked with in the past and who is on my list to work with again. It’s so satisfying when great actors get to do great work.

July has been mad with my plays at Soho and the Bush and I’m off to the Avignon theatre festival at the end of the month so expect a blog about Le théâtre très bientôt…

Highlights from May 2017

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May was another bumper month culturally for me in a personal and wider way too. Not only did my new play The Scar Test (which opens at Soho Theatre in July) go into rehearsal with a cracking team on board, I also saw two astonishing pieces of theatre and made a film:

First up I went to The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth at the Royal Court. Directed by Sam Mendes it has a massive cast including a host of young children and is set in Northern Ireland at the height of ‘the Troubles’. I had my reservations before I saw it – could the writer pen anything to rival his amazing play Jerusalem? Also even though I saw an early performance there was already a lot of buzz about it – could it live up to the hype? For me it really did – amazing performances, nuanced writing encompassing the poetry and drama we all know to expect from classic Irish plays, plus a deeply compelling personal and political story. It did the thing great historical plays should – made me draw comparisons with today and none as stark as the conflict of how best to fight oppression
– peacefully with the pen or with direct action and even violence. The plight of the Irish Hunger strikers is also referred to in the play and it made me think about similarities with the current Palestinian hunger strikers imprisoned in Israel. I found it so compelling that as soon as I got home I booked to see it again – you don’t get much higher praise than that.

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Next, another historical play, this time at the beautiful Lyceum in Edinburgh: Glory on Earth by Linda McLean tells the story of a young Mary Queen of Scots and her early days after returning to Scotland from France when she met John Knox – the man considered the founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. He hated Mary and everything she stood for. This beautiful piece of theatre imagines those days and meetings with Knox and Mary and her ladies in waiting (here a chorus of Marys) and we get the very distinct feeling that from the outset the poor woman’s fate was sealed. The way David Grieg’s production playfully portrays this world as a fusion of then and now with oversized ruffs, embroidered boots and the court dancing to Christine and the Queens is so delightfully imaginative. I learned something new and I was massively entertained. What’s more it’s so rare see a play that’s all females on stage (as this was – all bar one) that I left feeling hugely inspired. It’s a brilliant production and one worth travelling for.

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Finally I have to include my short film. I wrote The Record a couple of years ago and won the Tommy Vine screenwriting Award at the Underwire film festival – which was some money towards making it. Thanks to my brilliant producers and SHH productions a dream team was pulled together including two young and incredibly talented actresses who withstood two gruelling days of filming like the pros they are. I was a wreck, barely slept the night before flapping about on set like a fifth wheel. Long and short is it’s going to be brilliant despite my involvement! Watch this space …

Highlights from April 2017

There are some months were my cultural satisfaction has been so low (mainly because I’ve failed to get out of the house or wrestle the remote from mini me, so as a result watched Hi-5 on Netflix on a loop) that I’ve scrabbled around for things to include in my top three. Not so this month where I’ve struggled with how to pick just three. Then I decided: hell I make the rules so I can break ’em. So this month it’s my top four as opposed to top three cultural highlights.
4856Firstly Dickie Beau’s Re-member Me at the Almeida, directed by Jan-willem van den Bosch. Dickie is an incredible award-winning performer who has been described as an “actor, physical performer and intrepid drag fabulist. He is a postmodern cultural pickpocket, maverick theatre-maker and twisted video star; looting a range of performance traditions, from “low culture” to “high art”, in the creation of distinctive performance experiences.” In this piece he has interviewed many great actors and directors including Ian McKellan and Richard Eyre about the role of Hamlet. He lip-syncs to these interviews and transforms. There are many other exciting visual elements that come into play too and what’s so beautiful is that the journey we the audience take is probably the same as Dickie did in making this show: it starts as being about Hamlet but very gradually it becomes about Ian Charleston whose performance as the Dane stands out in all the interviewees minds. Re-member Me only played for a few nights at the Almeida and I really really hope it gets the further life it so deserved. If it comes back I’ll definitely go and see it again – it was powerful and a whole lot of fun.
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Then I saw Guards at the Taj the Bush’s reopening show. What a flag in the sand and what a piece of pure theatre… two men on stage telling a very simple story about humanity and responsibility. A historical piece set in another time and place but so clearly relevant to today asking the question ‘Where do we draw the line?’ The writing gripped, the performances were engrossing and the direction smooth and unobtrusive. If this is a statement of what’s to come in the new Bush I’m very excited.
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And yet more theatre comes next (a wonderfully theatrey month) The Velveteen Rabbit at the Unicorn directed by Purni Morell and with Ashley Byam, Jason Carr, David Ganly & Christian Roe. I went for my daughter and loved it as much as she did. The beautiful children’s book is theatrically, imaginatively brought to life. The rabbit is played by a man without a bunny costume – no ears even, he just very simply runs his hands along his imaginary ears at the start and that’s enough. We know what he is – we believe what he is. More gorgeous performances and pure theatricality to brighten my day. And mini me adored the fact an actual real rabbit came on stage at the end. Magical.
And for my bonus number four you guessed it – more theatre! This time north of the border in Scotland. I went to see Girl In The Machine by the brilliant Steph Smith at the Traverse, directed by Orla O’Loughlin. A dark futuristic warning with Black Mirror undertones it’s another example of two actors, one writer and one director (along with an amazing creative team) being able to engross and provoke an audience.
My faith in theatre restored I head into May with lots of exciting things planned including Jez Butterworth’s Ferryman at the Royal Court a trip to Paris for some French theatre and back to Scotland for Glory on Earth at the Lyceum. I’m rubbing my hands in glee – lucky me.

Never forget: the path to production is paved with tears

tissuesThink about all the plays that are on.  West End, Fringe, Regional – there are 100s upon 100s. And when you work in the industry at any level you’re constantly aware of colleagues working on different projects. Some you’ve heard about from inception, others arrive fully formed in your inbox or social media feed.

And it’s easy to feel a bit envious about all the amazing work your friends are making – perhaps even wish you’d had that opportunity. So it’s worth remembering in this often super presented social media world that no production is easy and every birthing has it’s complications whatever level you are – from first outing to seasoned vet.

I’m not the former or the latter and not quite in the middle. I’ve have had a few things on. And when you’re part of the process as the writer (hopefully) usually you are a party to all the hiccups that occur in even the best laid plans.

In my experience so far:

  • I’ve had many more funding rejections than approvals (very few of us tweet about the nos);
  • lost actors/ directors/ crew at the 11th hour;
  • had power cuts;
  • had to cancel first night because a show wasn’t ready;
  • had to clean dirty dressing rooms myself (despite paying the theatre a massive hire fee);
  • had contracts changed;
  • dates moved without consultation leading to knock on problems;
  • had actors/crew shout at me about how little they are getting paid/ that they haven’t been paid (often unaware of the irony that I’m  not getting paid at all);

….you name it it’s happened.
In those moments I’ve pow-wowed with the team to problem solve, had extra rations of wine and cried to my friends or other half. I certainly haven’t publicised my pain to the world.

I guess this blog is just my way of reminding myself that there is no easy path in life, every ‘break’ only comes after much pressure is applied and that when I look at others’ timelines and the old green eyed monster is whispering I need to remember it’s tough for us all whether we talk about it or not… So we should celebrate each other’s successes and remember every production is a little miracle – especially in this age of ‘austerity.

Highlights from March 2017

 Cultural highlights for this month include theatre, podcast and something a bit unusual … auditions.

I’ve been part of the team meeting actors for my new play The Scar Test which will be at Soho Theatre in July. The play explores life for women in detention in the U.K. And although the play has a large number of characters in this first production it will be performed by 5 actors: 4 women and 1 man. So we’ve been meeting actors of different ages and ethnicity, it’s completely open. And I’ve been astonished by not only the quality of the actors we are seeing but the dedication and preparation they’ve put in, many learning lines in advance, all of them reading and having thoughts on the play and doing research themselves. It’s been a properly exciting process. So not a usual cultural highlight but a very real one!

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My play experience was Black Lives Black Words at the Bush. Part of the reopening programming of the new building Black Lives Black Words is the brain child of award-winning American playwright Reginald Edmund, who produced the USA premiere at the Greenhouse Theatre in Chicago in July 2015. The Bush Theatre presented its UK Premiere in Oct 2015 produced by Artistic Directors of the Future. This new iteration featured two plays from African-American writers:  #Matter (Idris Goodwin), This Bitter Earth (Harrison David Rivers), and four new plays by British writers: Womb (Somalia Seaton),The Principles of Cartography (Winsome Pinnock), My White Best Friend (Rachel De-Lahay) and The Interrogation of Sandra Bland (Mojisola Adebayo). Poet Anthony Anaxagorou also performed his poems If I Told You and Master’s Revenge.

The culmination of the evening was Mojisola Adebayo’s reimagining of The Interrogation of Sandra Bland, an African-American woman who was pulled over by police in Texas for failing to signal, the interrogating officer took against Sandra and arrested her. Three days later her body was found hanging in a police cell. Adebayo has transcribed the original interrogation and presents it here with a cast of seven women of colour playing Sandra. They are joined by more actresses from the community in a chorus as the piece continues. It was a powerful, breath-taking and unforgettable memorial, deftly directed by Omar Elerian.

Black Lives Black Words  only had three performances and I do hope it will come back.

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Finally a podcast – here was me thinking only BBC Radio could make compelling drama but Gimlet’s Homecoming proved me wrong. Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaacs and David Schwimmer lead the cast in what is billed as a ‘psychological thriller’ about a programme to rehabilitate disturbed war vets. I don’t want to give anything away so I wont say any more except have a listen – it’s free to download – but download all 6 because you will eat them up.

3 things writers are doing while you are reading (or failing to read) their script

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We’ve all done it. We’ve all met writers at parties or conferences or an event and said “Send me something, I’d love to read your work”. 80% of the time the writer will do it (and the 20% who don’t I’ll talk about later) and it lands in your mailbox and you think – “oh great I’ll read that this weekend”.

Three months later you’re on the loo, or making a cuppa or walking to the station and you think: “Shit! I haven’t read X’s piece yet – must do that”. Then at this point you either forget about it again or consign it to the pile of things I must do that I feel bad about and never get round to.

If you recognise this scenario, now is the moment to resolve not to ask to read people’s stuff again. You’re not a bad person (I’m including myself in all this to be clear – I’ve done it) but if you don’t have time don’t ask, because it can really mess with a writer’s head (I’m talking for all writers here – I know that’s ridiculous so actually scrub that I’m talking about myself).  Here’s three things writers (me) might be doing while you are sitting on their script.

  1. Sending test emails to their best mate to ensure their email is working
  2. Looking at your twitter/facebook/instagram account to see if you are in the country/still alive/ sending subliminal messages about how much you hate their script
  3. Feeling 100% sure that you have read it and hated it so much you can’t bring yourself to send any kind of message about it.

Pathetic perhaps but very true. We are delicate beasts us writers – thin skinned to let the world in and not thick skinned enough to keep it out when insecurity strikes.

The 20% of writers who DONT send a script when you ask are probably smart enough to know you are unlikely to find the time to read it and don’t want to open the door to paranoia (as detailed above).

So next time maybe think twice about asking – or when you realise you haven’t read it send a message just to say “I’m busy but nag me” (only if you want to be nagged) or “don’t hold your breath”. Seriously its much nicer than leaving a poor writer spending their time fixating on you. There’s only so many times we can check our email in one day.

Or perhaps us writers (me) should resolve to become one of the 20% and not bother to send work just in case it never gets read…

Nah!

PS This is not a dig at any one – or a cry for help! Currently I am fairly sure I’m not waiting for anyone to read any of my work 🙂

How many hours of dead women do we watch on TV?

I was happily watching a TV show I like the other night.  It started: a woman – beaten… abused. Suddenly I wasn’t concentrating on the story, I was feeling uncomfortable, realising how often women on screen are beaten, abused or dead on a slab. It’s something my other half complains about often, but this was the first time it really hit me.

I don’t want to name names, because this isn’t about slagging off individual programmes, but it got to me. So I did something I try not to do, I ranted on Facebook. This is what I posted:

Another night another tv programme where a woman is abused – I’m getting tired of so many shows with women being killed or beaten or hurt I KNOW there are other interesting genre busting shows being pitched by writers everyday – it’s time for change!

Give women writers and directors the reins then that change will come!”

Very quickly the post got a lot of likes and comments. Most people seemed to feel the same. It made me wonder if programmes about the abuse of women and children are made because audiences want them or because commissioners THINK audiences want them.

And then I wondered, am I being hysterical? IS it REALLY that bad or is it in my head – do those programmes just stand out a bit more?

Other half and I chatted and he challenged me to do a test – see how many hours of telly in a week are devoted to programmes with a storyline in which a woman or child is abused or murdered.

Challenge accepted.

But when I started scouring the telly guide for next week I realised I’d have to put in some parameters – for example these kind of topics can’t be shown till after the watershed. And there are so many channels now and I do have a life… So I took a sample- one week,  the four main channels, between 9pm and midnight. Here’s what I found out:

  • In total across 28 hours of telly 8 of those featured these kind of stories
  • There was one hour every week night bar Friday and more than that at the weekend because of films.

That means 38% of telly in that slot features stories where women and kids are abused and/or killed. And to my mind that’s far too much. I’m not even including in my sample storylines in soaps or continuing dramas.

Imagine if we could get commissioners to commit to lowering that percentage significantly? Or just to take one of those hours and devote it to something different – something innovative, something where  woman walks around talking unscarred…

Might we be able to make a wider positive change in the way people think about women and children by commissioning uplifting, positive stories that explore what it is to be human and have relationships in new, unusual ways. And make new genres, or – hell – get rid of genres all together.

There are other kinds of dramas waiting to be born and plenty of female (and male) writers, directors and actresses ready to step up and make them given half a chance… So come on commissioners, what are you waiting for?