My best of 2016

Yes it was a shit year in so many ways – but I’ve picked – not my top 3 (too hard) but top 5 cultural things: a play, two tellys, a radio drama and a concert.

In order of when they happened:

Scenes from 68* Years at the Arcola in April

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Well you didn’t think I was going to miss out my own play did you? I’m not being big headed I promise, I know the reason the production was brilliant (if you think it was and I do) was because of the amazing cast, director and crew who made my writing look 100 times better than it is. I feel so lucky to have had the perfect alchemy of that team working on it. So massive thanks to them all. And if you missed it and happen to be in Chicago in February you could go and see a reading of it there then…

Mum on BBC Two in May

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This comedy was one of the best things on telly in 2016. Lesley Manville was hilarious and touching as the eponymous Mum. Go and buy it on BBC Store if you missed it and watch it all… I am going to do that just so I can see it again. And the best news ever is that it has been recommissioned for a new series.

The CBeebies Prom in August

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What to say about this one, I took mini me and blubbed my way through it – then wrote about why I cried more than my daughter.

Tracks on Radio 4 in September

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I love my radio drama. As my world is so busy and fragmented with writing and mumming and other work, being able to download and listen to dramas while I’m on the move is a life saver. Tracks was an epic nine-part twist and turn conspiracy thriller. It had epic ambition and managed to pull off televisual style car chases and the like that you don’t expect to hear on the radio. Kept me listening for nearly 7 hours. Brilliant. And it’s still downloadable if you fancy a try.

Witness for the Prosecution on BBC One in December

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We all love a Christie for Christmas don’t we? But I sort of expect them to be old-fashioned fusty affairs – in this case I couldn’t have been more wrong. Sarah Phelps’ adaptation was immediately engrossing – Christie and Phelps make a great team, what’s more the performances were excellent especially from Andrea Riseborough (pictured) who absolutely transforms in every role she plays (last seen in Channel 4’s National Treasure though I almost didn’t recognise her). Add to this some beautiful camera work and you have an absolute Christmas treat. I know the beeb has plans for 7 more Christie adaptations for future Christmases I really hope they can recreate the magic conjured here again and again.

December 2016

Despite a month beset with hideous illness in my household I did manage to find some cultural healing.

First I experienced the joy of my daughter’s first Christmas show: she was a beautiful sheep and remembered her line (it was more substantial than baaaaa) . I cried throughout which you won’t be surprised about if you read about it my experience at the CBeebies Prom. And then there was the brilliant Professor Dill’s Punch and Judy (pictured) for mini-me’s birthday which delighted kids old and young and made me cry with laughter – highly recommended. 

Then another Christmassy show – and a theatre institution: I took ma to Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap for her birthday. I thought it might be a bit worse for wear being as aged as it is (we saw the 26,718th performance) and the worlds longest running play, but actually I was really surprised. Some great performances and that Christie woman can weave a great yarn … she kept me guessing who dunnit right till the end. 

And finally more Christie on BBC One a breathtakingly brilliant adaptation of Witness for the Prosecution. It was dark and sultry in Sarah Phelps’ screenplay with superb performances. I loved it – a proper Christmas gift – catch it on iPlayer while you still can. 

Right now I’m off to look through my blog for 2016 and pick my 3 highlights from across the year which won’t be easy! 

November 2016

A busy month. Again. So busy I’m now under house arrest but that’s another story…

Three easy highlights – though one is a bit of a cheat – you’ll see why:

Firstly The Royale at the Bush. I’m currently writer on attachment at the Bush as part of Project 2036, so this may seem like sycophancy but it is absolutely not. I was worried I might not like it – I do not share my Mum and brother’s love of boxing. But Marco Ramirez’s historical drama set in 1905 about black boxer Jay ‘The Sport’ Jackson who dreams of being the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world feels incredibly relevant. The production is beautifully realised at the Tabernacle – a venue I’d never been to before that could have been made for this very play. Add excellent performances into the mix and you have all the makings of a memorable night of theatre.
awanMy second choice is my cheat: #AWAN in Belgium (because it’s technically two highlights in one). I was invited to speak in Ghent as part of Arts Canteen’s Arab Woman Artists Now and while there I met two other women who inspired me hugely: performance artist Maiada Aboud and singer Juliana Yazbeck. The photos we saw and concepts around Maida’s work are incredibly affecting, provocative and courageous. I’ll look forward to seeing her art in person in future. And Juliana’s music blew me away – a heady fusion of her Lebanese and American heritage I wanted her to sing all night.

With my final choice I surprise myself – The Crown on Netflix. I wasn’t going to bother as I’m not really into the Royals. But I knew Ma would be up for it so we started last week. The writing (by Peter Morgan) is excellent, production values high (they should be I’m sure they threw millions at it) and the performances above all excellent. Claire Foy particularly gives a very mature performance. Very different from other roles I’ve seen her play. Clearly with all the problems in the world I should be watching a documentary about how to save the planet and not something that puts a rose tint on a dubious out-dated tradition. But when I put all that aside I thought it was jolly good telly.

December brings my daughter’s first Christmas show at school I do hope that makes the cut for my blog. Enjoy the festivities.

October 2016

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What a strange month. So very busy but when I look back over the diary I realise it’s been all work, work, work and no play. Not a theatre trip all month 😦 and I tried and failed to get to I, Daniel Blake several times but fortune was against me. Hope to see it in November.

So my cultural highlights are a bit different – a festival and two tellys…

First up a festival in Lichfield Holding Palestine in the Light. Full transparency here – I went along because I was giving a little talk. But it was absolutely lovely to meet all the people there (a few even bought my play!) and to hear fellow playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak talk about his work and his recent trip to the International Theatre Festival in Cairo. A fascinating time.

My first telly is Grey’s Anatomy. Yes I know I’m about 15 years behind the times, but what started out as “watching an episode or two for research” has turned into an absolute obsession. True the Ali Macbeal style voice over that bookends proceedings feels very dated and 1990s, but the stories themselves are so engaging, we care massively about the characters and become totally wrapped up in the regular and guest stories. I’m hooked.

Finally on the last day of the month I watched The Moonstone (pictured at the top), a new BBC One adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ novel. It is programmed in a daytime slot – unusual for a period piece – so I wondered if that would reflect in the quality of the work. Not a bit of it. Absolutely sumptuously shot, some very lovely understated performances and thoroughly engaging so far. I really like the way it has been adapted too – John Yorke the Exec producer wrote a blog about the adaptation and there’s an interview with writers Sasha Hails and Rachel Flowerday on BBC Writersroom in case you are interested. I’ll certainly be watching all of this one.

November brings Hotel Cerise at Theatre Royal Stratford East, plus the Bush’s The Royale and a trip to Ghent to talk at AWAN (Arab Women Artists Now) event.

 

 

September 2016

How is it October already? That means two months ’til, but enough of that: instead my September highlights, which include a radio, a telly and an event.

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First Tracks – a nine-part radio drama that finished this week. Written by Matthew Broughton and directed by James Robinson the series lived up to its billing as “a major conspiracy thriller”. It had more twists and turns than your cerebrum (that’s me trying to make a clever reference for those in the know who have also listened) and some fantastic performances especially Romola Garai’s Helen. We are also treated to cameos from the brilliant Nabil Elouhabi as a drunk doctor and the wonderful Kenneth Cranham pops up in the last episode too.

I absolutely loved the visual quality of the production despite it being a radio play – there was no shying away from big, exciting moments – car chases – stuff like that. Exhilarating, ambitious, must-listen stuff, so – you know – listen it on iPlayer.

p039ph43Next Doctor Who – well #WritingDoctorWho a brilliant event I was lucky enough to get to at the BBC Radio Theatre where lead writer and exec Steven Moffat talked about writing for the programme and in general. I wrote a detailed blog about the #WritingDoctorWho event for About the BBC so I won’t cover the same ground, but there was one general comment Moffat made about giving script notes that is very simple, but is joyous and made me think about script editing in a whole new (positive) way. He said:

“You will make more improvements by praising the good than by criticising the bad. Praise is not sugaring the pill. It is more important to grow the good than shrink the bad. There are many ways to miss a target – but only one way to hit it. Find the great about a script and get more of that.”

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Finally I’m really enjoying Damned a new Channel 4 comedy set in a social workers office written by and starring Jo Brand and Morwenna Banks, that also has Alan Davies in it. Only two eps in there’s already been the topics of parents with learning difficulties; a granny looking after the kids because Mum is addicted to heroin and a suspected pupil teacher relationship and yes you did read right – it is a comedy. All this is handled really smartly and the writing constantly undermines your expectations. It’s very ,very good, check it out.

October brings… an event in Lichfield that I’m speaking at with Hassan Abdulrazzak and films in the London Film Festival.

August 2016

  
A Telly, a concert and a play form my cultural top 3 for August. First I did a free 30 days on Amazon and got hooked to Transparent. For the uninitiated the premise is that the father of a grown up (but immature) family reveals to them all that he is Trans.

I watched both series and was delighted and horrified in equal measure by the self involved, narcissistic beings I found. I loved it but am baffled that it’s billed as a comedy. 

Then I went to the CBeebies Prom with mini-me. She was mesmerized. I cried – lots, and wrote a whole blog about it on About The BBC

  

Finally, the last day of the month brought Paradise – well the Paradise Club, the setting for Counting Stars. Director Pooja Ghai and her team have deftly transformed the main stage of Theatre Royal Stratford East into a night club, though in Atiha Sen Gupta’s play we hang out in the loos with the two Nigerian attendants. It’s a funny, but also tough look at what life is like for this pair of immigrants who may be in the gutter but are very much looking at the stars. 

The two performers are very strong and I reckon this play will sell out so do book up and go – it’s on till 17 September. 

Next month brings The Plough and The Stars at NT which I’m excited about and I’m planning to Netflix Stranger Things and see what all the fuss is about… 

July 2016

  My cultural highlights for July start with an exhibition of photographs at the Brazilian Embassy. Ellie Kurttz is an extraordinary photographer who has taken many theatre pictures. This exhibition specifically focussed on her Shakespeare snaps. And they are astonishing – some I’ve seen before but here blown up to massive size and curated beautifully so they are all around you and hanging over your head is breathtaking. The exhibition also features a massive print of the image above from Ninagawas Titus at the RSC. It’s a production I was dragged to heathen that I am- “three hours of shakespeare in Japanese no thanks” – but one that I’ll never forget because of moments like this one which Ellie captured iconically. 

Then at last I watched Murdered by my Father, I’ve been meaning to for months but putting it off. When I sit down to watch telly I’m usually after a bit of escapism which a factually inspired story about honour killing is not. But I’m so pleased I watched this – the acting and writing are so truthful and it’s handled so carefully on the production. I was also impressed that though it’s set in a specific community and time and place it provoked me to think about other small communities where pressure from neighbours and elders can drive people to do terrible things. Can’t deny you will need tissues but it’s very very good do watch. 

Finally Life Lines on Radio 4 a heart wrenching drama in 5 x 15 minute episodes about the experiences of a woman who is a 999 operator. I don’t want to say anything else except it’s only on iPlayer a few more days so stop reading this and go and listen to that – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07l6269

June 2016

What a month June was. Much escapism needed from the drama of real-life during and post the EU Referendum.

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I spent a lot of time re-watching series one of The Thick Of It. It left me wondering if political satire is now dead – if not where the hell do we go from here in this landscape of truth being much stranger than fiction. Nevertheless Doctor Who swearing for Scotland (in the form of the brilliant Peter Capaldi as Head of Comms Malcom Tucker) is one of the things guaranteed to brighten a dark day.

512bf7bymfml-_sx329_bo1204203200_ But some actual, real escapism was provided by this brilliant book: The Trilogy of Two by Juman Malouf. It’s billed as a YA novel but the themes are dark and Malouf never pulls her punches – you never feel she’s holding back for the sake of her audience. In the novel she creates an incredible dystopian world, where metal cities are spreading out slowly and taking over the planet. Twins Charlotte and Sonia live on the outskirts, as part of a circus where they play music. But when their ‘talents’ are stolen one day and they are forced on a quest to find them, and in the process they uncover a much bigger plot and learn much about themselves.

It’s a wonderful coming of age story and Malouf’s skill brings to mind Tolkein and Pullman. The difference for me is the emotion of the writing that draws you in and makes you really really care about the characters. I found myself very tearful in the last part of the book and that is a testament to the writing.

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I’ve also spent much time watching new Danish series Dicte on More 4. Dicte is a crime reporter who has a very complicated personal life. As ever the Danes do brilliantly complex female characters splendidly and I don’t think it can be a coincidence that this is written by two clearly brilliant women – Dorthe Warnø Høgh and Ida Maria Rydén. It’s also lovely to have a cast of actors who I recognise from The Killing and Borgen. If you like your Noir Scandi and your female characters complicated this is for you.

July brings a little sadness as I can’t attend PalFest Ireland this year – but if you can you should – it will be brilliant and runs from 8-16 July. I’ve got this photo exhibition booked in by the amazing Ellie Kurttz, I’m going to Wimbledon (does that count as a cultural event?), and a pre Edinburgh preview of Octopus at the end of the month… and I’ve already seen a very interesting timely production of David Edgar’s Pentabus so it may be tough picking my 3 for July.

May 2016

And just like that it’s June. And my cultural highlights for May are easy:

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1. Cannes film festival. I went. I didn’t see any films. But I pitched one and heard some interesting talks. It was a culture shock let’s say – you can read all about my experience here. Oh and a shout out to Pinar Ogun and Ustun Canga of Be Aware productions who saved me from sleeping on the beach when my train was cancelled because of a strike!

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2. Mum: not mine (pictured) – though she is a legend. Instead the new Lesley Manville comedy from Stefan Golaszewski, the writer of Him and Her (which I’m afraid to say I never watched, but on the basis of this I may revisit). Despite being billed as a sitcom, this is drama and comedy in equal measure. Beautiful performances, wonderfully loathsome characters. LM is a brilliant actress and this a marvellous role for her to shine in.

 

3. King Lear: of all Shakespeare’s plays this is the one I’ve done to death: A-level, Uni, I’ve seen half a dozen productions over the years. In fact the first ever Shakespeare I saw was Talawa’s previous King Lear at the Cochrane Theatre a million years ago. So why go to Birmingham to see another Lear? Two words: Debbie Korley. Debbie is a fantastic actress I’ve had the pleasure of working with and she was playing Reagan in Talawa’s new production with Don Warrington. That seemed oddly serendipitical too. And so I went. And It was worth the trip: Mr W was as Kingly, strong a Lear as I’ve seen, and there were some other great performances – Debs as Reagan (of course), Norman Bowman as Cornwall, Rakie Ayola as Goneril I could go on. I was also reminded how much I love Birmingham Rep and how easy it is to get there. I see more Midlands trips in my future.

June brings … A lot of telly as my other half is abroad working. But there’s also a visit to Chichester to see a Rattigan with a Fiennes and a Polycarpou and that’s very exciting…

3 things I learned from Cannes

In mid May I found myself in a surreal situation – I was at Cannes Film Festival. I wasn’t involved with a film that was screening, I’d been selected by Maison Scenarists – a group of French screenwriters – to pitch my screenplay idea to selected producers there.
I didn’t really know what to expect and it was certainly a baptism of fire, so here are three things I wanted to share from my experience that might be useful should you ever find yourself in the mouth of the beast.
1. It may be the digital age but you need a hard copy card. This was my big Cannes faux pas. Everyone is at Cannes to be seen and everyone within seconds of meeting presents you with their business card. 80% of the time that I shyly admitted I didn’t have one (but that they could google me or look on my agent’s website) I was regarded with a raised eyebrow – I couldn’t be a proper writer without a card on it saying so. 

2. Don’t expect to see any films. This was an anathema to me, a film festival where I failed to watch a single movie! I was imagining the equivalent of an Edinburgh fringe fest for films – how wrong I was. There’s massive hierarchy to the festival, after asking for your card people have no qualms about grabbing your accreditation pass which everyone wears around their necks and judging you on the information held therein: name, profession and most importantly what level of access you have all aid the process. But even if you have high level access getting into films is tough for all but the VIPs – with high level entry you can buy tickets but still have to queue and may not get in! Even at short film corner the queues are staggering and constant. There’s also a weird phenomenon of beautiful young women appearing near the festival entrances in the evenings dolled up to the nines with signs saying ‘invitation please’ – it must work sometimes but I found it pretty creepy. I did discover this useful blog however on my last day which gives some tips on early morning screenings and other insider info should you ever need it: http://www.bestofniceblog.com/things-to-do-in-nice-by-month/may/cannes-film-festival/

3. Be yourself even if other people aren’t friendly. There’s a very unBritish dog eat dog atmosphere that can be supremely intimidating. It’s about the business not the art of films. But I think it’s important to be yourself because so many people are there putting on a pose. What’s good about that is when you meet a genuine someone you know it straight away – I was lucky enough to meet a few. And I’d recommend looking up the good folk at Maison Scenarists if you are ever there as they offer free masterclasses with screenwriters (highlights this year included one with Paul Laverty – Ken Loach’s screenwriter.)

And one more tip for luck – brush up on your French. Although many people speak English having your longline in French is very handy – just in case.