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Same As It Ever Was

“EVEN NOW, VOICES LIKE DUNBAR’S ARE LARGELY ABSENT FROM THE ARTS”

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett on Andrea Dunbar’s extraordinary portrait of teenage girls Rita, Sue and Bob Too

Taj Atwal and Gemma Dobson in our production. Photo by Richard Davenport.

To have a play produced for the Royal Court at the age of 19 is an astonishing achievement. For it to be your second play (the first, The Arbor, having been written by Dunbar at 15 about her teenage pregnancy and subsequent stillbirth, was also put on at the Royal Court), and for you to be a working class woman from one of the roughest council estates in Bradford is a rise of astronaut proportions. Even now, a class ceiling ensures that voices like Andrea Dunbar’s are largely absent from the arts, perhaps even more so than they were in 1982, when Max Stafford-Clark first staged Rita, Sue and Bob Too.

Times have changed since the Thatcher era, but not so much that modern audiences will struggle to recognise the world Dunbar draws with such raw humour. We have a different female Tory prime minister in 2017, but one who equally seems to believe there’s no such thing as society. As food bank use rockets and the younger generation face a housing crisis, the conservatives’ austerity policies continue to hit the most vulnerable.

Some will look at the world Dunbar came from ­– the Buttershaw estate where she continued to live until her premature death at the age of 29 was one of the poorest in Bradford ­– and marvel that she found anything to laugh about. Her semi-autobiographical tale of the friendship between two teenagers, Rita and Sue, and their “affair” with the older, married Bob which begins when he drives them home from babysitting his children crackles with sharp humour. Self-pity is entirely absent; Rita and Sue seem to be in possession of their own sexualities, yet are innocent by the standards of today’s teenagers, who can have porn clips beamed into their smartphones at a moment’s notice. They are also, obviously, under the age of consent, and though this is referenced, their relationship with the sleazy Bob is viewed by the girls themselves as bleakly but amusingly par for the course. A succession of abuse scandals that have come to light may have left you wondering whether the concept of grooming existed in 1982. Dunbar implies that the answer is not simple, though audiences may disagree. In a way it is courageous and perhaps controversial to stage this play now.

Andrea Dunbar. Photo: Don McPhee

Rita and Sue have the cocky sexual self-assurance of girls who’ve been fumbling since their early teens, yet neither knows how to put a condom on (Rita is even too embarrassed to buy sanitary towels), nor are equipped with the resilence or maturity to deal with the fallout of their sexual relationships with Bob. When it all finally falls apart, it is they who are left shouldering the blame as “sluts” who should be ashamed of themselves, while Bob is largely exempt – even his wife accuses them of putting it on plate. There’s a feeling that this is just how men are, nothing but trouble, unable to control themselves when tempted.

What makes Rita, Sue and Bob Too so successful as a piece of drama is its confrontational and unsentimental presentation of the characters; there is nothing “actorly” about them; these are real people, you can tell from the way they speak, and joke, and most of all swear. “This is life, the facts are there … these things do go on – maybe not in every circle, but certainly in mine”, Dunbar told the Yorkshire Post. To audiences who saw the much-loved film adaptation, this was “Thatcher’s Britain with her knickers down”, but to Dunbar there was little shocking about it, it was just the way things were. Her ambivalence, her refusal to moralise, and her insistence on portraying Rita and Sue’s lust for life despite their grim surroundings.

Class is a constant undercurrent in the play. Bob is married, employed, aspirational, from a posher part of town. He and his wife Michelle have the funds to pay two local girls to babysit while they enjoy evenings out. Michelle is a machinist and part-time Avon lady with a wardrobe full of the kinds of clothes that others can only dream of. Meanwhile Rita and Sue are about to leave school and are on YTS at the mill. “She’s got everything a woman could ask for,” says Rita. “Her own house. A nice husband and a couple of kids. She can buy what she wants. And still she’s not satisfied. I wouldn’t mind what she’s got. I’d be satisfied.”

Taj Atwal, Gemma Dobson and James Atherton in our production. Photo by Richard Davenport.

The affair ends up, in a way, providing both Rita and Sue with a passport out of the estate – Rita to what she hopes will be a more comfortable, middle-class life with Bob (though he has fallen on hard times and lost the biggest symbol of his sexual prowess – his car), and Sue to a new relationship with a fella you assume is more age-appropriate. She says that she misses the estate, but what it turns into over the years is something even worse, with booze and glue-sniffing replaced by heroin. In A State Affair, a play based on interviews with residents that was commissioned in 2000, audiences returned to the Buttershaw estate to discover that it was, if possible, even grimmer up North. “[Today] Rita and Sue would be smack heads… on crack as well… and working the red light district, sleeping with everybody and anybody for money. Bob would probably be injecting heroin”, said Andrea Dunbar’s daughter Lorraine, at the time. She went on to be convicted of manslaughter after her one-year-old son ingested her methadone.

The world of Rita, Sue and Bob Too could be seen as rather innocent in comparison. At the time the play was first performed, there were some residents of the estate who took objection to its portrayal, but what Dunbar did is hold a mirror up to her world with a lack of sentimentality that was defiant and courageous. She was one of seven children, with an abusive father, and by 18 was a single mother with three children of her own and living in a women’s refuge in Keighley. She could have so easily fallen by the wayside, as so many other working class kids with potential do. Instead, she became “a genius straight from the slums” who refused to shy away from uncomfortable and unpalatable truths, shocking Southern audiences and prompting them to ask, “is this really how people live?” Allegedly at least one critic believed it to be satire. It wasn’t so much kitchen sink drama as backseat of a car drama – filthy and funny, gritty and depressing, sexual yet hilariously unerotic, not to mention confrontational. Rita, Sue and Bob Too is full of the contradictions of poverty, a condition that to outsiders can seem two-dimensional at best. The play has a nuance that’s lacking from modern, reality TV depictions of life in benefits Britain, a country in which as far as much of the media is concerned there are scroungers and strivers and nothing in-between.

In 2017, the country is going through a period of soul-searching in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. Politicians and commentators no longer see it as politically convenient to ignore communities such as Dunbar’s. The Buttershaw has seen millions of pounds of regeneration money poured into it in the wake of the play and the film’s success, but it’s doubtful that it will have been enough to reverse decades of industrial and economic decline. A revival is timely. Rita and Sue’s live’s are as real and their problems as relevant today as they ever were.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist and author based in North London. @rhiannonlucyc

Rita, Sue and Bob Too tours until February 2018.

Taj Atwal: I wanted the ground to swallow me whole

portrait of actress Taj Atwal

photo by Helen Murray

Taj Atwal stars as Rita in our new production of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, Andrea Dunbar’s iconic play. Read about Taj’s first encounter with the work of a young woman who would come to be her favourite playwright.

I was a loud, passionate 18 year old heading off to drama school in leafy Surrey. It was a world away from North Yorkshire but I was fearless and streetwise, and felt I’d be able to settle in with no issues. But drama school was, it turned out, a world unknown to me. Sat in a circle on the first day we were asked to say one fascinating thing about ourselves and what we had been doing that summer. Teens shared stories of backpacking on their gap year around Vietnam, Cambodia and the Americas, others reeled off Shakespeare plays they had seen at the Globe. I muttered something about my own summer highlight, a trip to see my idols, the Spice Girls.

Some gasped, most laughed. I wanted the ground to swallow me whole. For the first time in my life, I was aware of a class divide, and it set me up for three years of feeling inadequate. I’d lived my life first on a council estate in Norwich and then growing up among working-class northerners in York. Presuming myself to be out of my depth, I struggled to apply myself to Shakespeare or other remote-seeming classical texts.

Taj Atwal rehearsing a scene from Rita, Sue and Bob Too, with Gemma Dobson

One rainy winter morning I was sulking in the library, attempting to choose a play to perform for our next module and unable to find one that resonated, when I stumbled across Andrea Dunbar’s The Arbor. WOW. “This is me,” I mumbled, turning page after page. Here were words that sounded like mine, characters I had grown up with. Eager to read more I spent the afternoon on the internet soaking up Andrea’s short and shocking life of hunger, teenage pregnancy, poverty and success, and her tragic early death. She hailed from the Buttershaw Estate on the outskirts of Bradford, coming of age at a time when unemployment was at a peak of three million. Out of this despair came her words, so true, raw and unfiltered and funny.

When she wrote The Arbor, Andrea was only 15 and struggling to complete English homework. A teacher encouraged her to write a play instead. From this The Arbor was born, and after sending it to the Royal Court young writers programme, Andrea’s play received a successful run, followed by a commission that led to her second, most famous play and subsequent film.

Alan Clarke’s film of Rita, Sue and Bob Too (photo: BFI)

Rita, Sue and Bob Too is about two teenage girls and their affair with an older man. These girls came from a place where the opportunity to thrive was non-existent. I play Rita, who has no father, several siblings, lives with her mother and is Sue’s best friend. Rita instantly falls for Bob’s charm. He shows her attention and – it seems to her – the adoration she has never received. He listens to her and having never had a male role model she looks up to him and doesn’t see his flaws.

Taj Atwal in rehearsal for Rita, Sue and Bob Too, with James Atherton.

I love the complexity Andrea gives Rita. On the surface, she’s a normal 15 year old girl up for a laugh. But underneath are layers of vulnerability and naivety – she’s easily manipulated by both Sue and Bob. And she harbours an aspiration to be something more than her circumstances promise. Like Andrea, these girls came from a place where the opportunity to thrive was almost non-existent, where the only permitted ambition for a girl was to be married with kids in a nice house. Bob is quick to put down her dreams of studying to be a policewoman or travelling, and it’s because of Bob she loses the chance to pursue them.

At 15 I was resolute that I would leave my city, see the world and become an actress. I also recall an overwhelming loneliness and the hunger to be something more. That’s what drives the characters in this play – the fight to be heard, to be loved and to be more than what their situation allows them to be. Why do they feel so real? Because Andrea knew these people, lived with them, grew up with them. As with all great playwriting, parts of her are in all of her characters. She gave a voice to a community who were suffering in Thatcher’s Britain – whether they wanted it or not.

Paul Copley, Lesley Manville and Joanne Whalley in the 1982 world premiere of Rita, Sue and Bob Too (photo: John Haynes)

Andrea wasn’t unique in her experience of alcoholism, domestic abuse and underage sex and pregnancy, nor in clawing some kind of life back from it. But her voice was unique, and silenced tragically young – she was dead at 29 from a brain haemorrhage, possibly triggered by a pub fight. She’d had three plays staged at one of the world’s most famous theatres, and in practical terms it hadn’t changed the course of her life at all.


Precocious Writers

Andrea Dunbar at home on Bradford’s Buttershaw Estate in the early 80s while she was writing Rita, Sue and Bob Too. Photo: Don McPhee.

Raised on a Bradford council estate, Andrea Dunbar was just 15 when she wrote her first play, The Arbor. A drama teacher encouraged her to send it to the Royal Court Theatre, where it was first staged as a one act play in the Young Writers Festival before being expanded into a full two-act show in the prestigious main house. Andrea was still in her teens when she wrote her second play, her biggest hit Rita Sue and Bob Too: it was commissioned when she was 19.

In case that doesn’t make you feel under-achieving enough, here’s a look at some more writing prodigies. With thanks to Kelly Slade.

ALEXANDER POPE (1688 – 1744)

Pope wrote his first poem, “Ode to Solitude,” in 1700 at the age of 12. He suffered from ill health following a childhood illness and had a curved spine, asthma and headaches. He also had a disjointed education due to his illness and tough laws against Catholics. According to his sister, all he did was write and read.

His first major work, Pastorals, was published in 1709, and brought him instant fame at 21. His most well-known poem is The Rape of the Lock, a satirical look at a high society quarrels in a pastiche of a heroic epic.

Pope eventually gained great financial success and is the third most frequently quoted author in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations behind Shakespeare and Tennyson. He died in 1744.

 

CAITLIN MORAN (b. 1975)

Caitlin Moran on the cover of her novel, which she wrote when she was 15.

Caitlin Moran’s novel The Chronicles of Narmo was published when she was 16 – the same age at which she became a reporter for Melody Maker. She grew up in a council house in Wolverhampton and was home educated, an upbringing that inspired her sitcom Raised by Wolves.

Moran – she pronounces her first name “Catlin” – is a Times columnist and has published several books of memoir, journalism and fiction, including How to be a Woman and How To Build a Girl.

 

BARBARA NEWHALL FOLLETT (1914 – ??)

Barbara was an American child prodigy novelist. Her first novel, The House Without Windows, was published in January 1927, when she was 12 years old and her second, The Voyage of the Norman D., received critical acclaim when she was 14.

In December 1939, aged 25, she reportedly became depressed with her marriage and walked out of her apartment with thirty dollars. She was never seen again, and later investigations failed to find trace of her alive or dead.

 

BRET EASTON ELLIS

The American Psycho author wrote his first novel Less Than Zero when he was 21 – the movie rights were sold before the book was published. He published his second, The Rules of Attraction, at 23.

JEAN NICOLAS ARTHUR RIMBAUD (1854 – 1891)

Rimbaud’s poem “Les Étrennes des orphelins” (“The Orphans’ New Year’s Gift”) was published in Revue pour tous when he was just 15. Having been raised by an ambitious mother who would punish his academic mistakes by depriving him of meals, Rimbaud became the image of the romantic rebel poet. At 16, he wrote “Le Bateau ivre,” which he sent to the poet Paul Verlaine as an introduction. At Verlaine’s invitation Rimbaud travelled to Paris and began an affair with the older poet, who abandoned his wife and child when the two men moved to London.

When he was almost 19, Rimbaud returned to Paris; when Verlaine later joined him, the reunion did not go well, and Verlaine shot at Rimbaud in a drunken rage, hitting Rimbaud in the wrist. (As a result of the ensuing police investigation into the attempted murder as well as the two men’s relationship, Verlaine received a 2-year prison sentence.)

Around the same time, Rimbaud published Une Saison en Enfer, his first and only work published by himself. By age 20, Rimbaud had given up creative writing for good. When he was 21, he enlisted in the Dutch Colonial Army, but deserted once he got to the Dutch East Indies.

 

ANYA REISS (b. 1991)

Anya Reiss’s debut Spur of the Moment in its Royal Court production. Photo: Keith Pattison.

An alumni of the Royal Court’s Young Writers Programme, Reiss was 17 when she wrote Spur of the Moment, for which she was named Most Promising Playwright at both the Critics’ Circle and Evening Standard awards. (She received her A-level results during the play’s Royal Court run!). As well as subsequent plays and Chekhov adaptations, Reiss has been a frequent writer for Eastenders.

See Rita, Sue and Bob Too on tour from September 2017 – February 2018.

See you in court

Consent, our new play by Nina Raine, revolves around a court case: two friends take opposing briefs in a rape trial. But the techniques they use to spin their side of events also crop up in their personal lives. The inherent theatricality of the courtroom can make for powerful drama. Here we look at some other great courtroom plays. Thanks to Lucy Morehen.

Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise in the film version of A Few Good Men

A FEW GOOD MEN by Aaron Sorkin

Daniel Kaffee is an inexperienced military lawyer, assigned to defend two US marines accused of the murder of a fellow marine at Guantanamo Bay. Over the course of the trial, the defence unearth a wider conspiracy around the murder, establishing the existence of a “code-red’ order – an extrajudicial punishment beating.

The play was inspired by real events and several people have claimed to be the “real” Kaffee, though Sorkin has said the character is not based on any one individual.

The Headlong/Almeida produciton of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot

THE LAST DAYS OF JUDAS ISCARIOT by Stephen Adly Guirgis:

Guitgis imagines a court cae to determine the fate of Jesus kisser/betrayer Judas Iscariot. The play uses flashbacks to an imagined childhood, and lawyers who call for testomines from people such as Mother Teresa, Saint Monia, Sigmund Freud and even Satan.

 

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE by William Shakespeare:

Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, quite literally demands a pound of flesh from merchant Antonio as the price of failing to repay a loan.

Bafflingly, Antonio agrees: the loan is to help his dear friend Bassanio pursue marriage. When Antonio’s ships fail to come in, Shylock takes him to court to demand his due. Why be lenient when he has been treated appallingly by Antonio and his circle for years?

Bassanio’s new wife, Portia, poses as lawyer and takes to the court, finding a loophole in the particular wording of the agreement, arguing that Shylock may take his pound of flesh but if any blood is shed, or the weight taken is not exactly a pound, or any harm comes to Antonio, Shylock will lose his fortune – and his life.

 

THE ACCUSED

Jeffrey Archer’s third play cast the audience as its jury, and himself as Dr Sherwood, accused of murdering his wife. Two endings were prepared, depending on the audience’s vote.

 

TWLEVE ANGRY MEN by Reginald Rose:

Twelve nameless jurors must decide whether a young man killed his own father.

The stakes are high: during the play the jury are told if they reach a guilty verdict, it will result in the death sentence.

Twelve Angry Men explores the roles of race and class within a justice system that depends on the willing participation of its citizens. The play was adapted from Rose’s original teleplay of the same title in 1954 and made its Broadway debut fifty years later.

To Kill A Mockingbird, at Regents Park Open Air Theatre

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee:

Lawyer Atticus Finch is appointed to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a young white woman – an impossible task in the social climate, despite the significant evidence supporting Tom’s innocence. Lee’s genius move was to tell her Depression-era story through the eyes of Scout, Atticus’ young daughter.

The best-known adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel is the 1962 film, but the 1990 stage adaptation has been performed widely including a 2013 production starring Robert Shawn Leonard.

 

THE CRUCIBLE by Arthur Miller:

Three girls and a black slave are caught dancing in the woods by local minister Reverend Parris, whose daughter has fallen into a coma-like sleep.

Rumours of witchcraft fly about, and the resulting persecutions and trials engulf the town. But more earthly secrets complicates the proceedings, not least the past affair between one of the young women and John Proctor, a local farmer who is eventually hung for witchcraft, having refused to make an official confession that might save his life.

The Crucible is set amid the witch trials of Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. Miller wrote it during the administration of Senator Joseph McCarthy, to whose House Committee on Un-American Activities Miller had testified, but refused to name suspected Communists.

Kevin Spacey in Inherit The Wind at the Old Vic

INHERIT THE WIND by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee:

Highlighting the cultural clash between science and religion, Inherit the Wind follows the trial of Bertram Cates, who has been arrested for teaching Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. The small-town court case draws national attention with lawyers and journalists flocking in from all around.

It was based on the 1925 trial of teacher John T Scopes in Tennessee USA. In 1922, a legislator from Tennessee had argued that since the bible provided the basis for the American government any deviation from it constituted as disrespect to the law.

The play gets its title from the Book of Proverbs which says, “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind; and the fool shall be servant to the wise of the heart.”

 

THE WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION by Agatha Christie:

[SPOILER!]

A young man named Leonard Vole is arrested for the murder of Emily French, a wealthy middle-aged woman with whom Leonard has had an affair and who has made Leonard her principle heir.

Leonard’s wife Romaine testifies in the trial, not to his defence but as a witness for the prosecution. At first, her testimony seems a damning indictment that will see him hanged. But some of her evidence proves fabricated, and the case against Vole collapses. It is, however, a deliberate ploy: by playing an unreliable witness, Romaine secures her husband’s freedom.

Christie’s play was first published as a short story, and she revised the ending more than once.

 

A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS by Robert Bolt:

Sir Thomas More was the Chancellor of England in the 16th Century. He was charged with treason for refusing to approve King Henry VIII’s wish to divorce Catherine of Aragon in order to Marry Anne Boleyn. At trial he is found guilty, and the town gathers to see him beheaded.

The Catholic martyr’s life and trial are also the subject of Thomas More, a play written by Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle with contributions from other writers including William Shakespeare.

 

LEGALLY BLONDE THE MUSICAL by Laurence O’Keefe, Nell Benjamin and Heather Hach:

Based on the novel written by Amanda Brown and after the success of the 2001 film, Legally Blonde The Musical was nominated for seven Tony Awards and won three Olivier Awards. It tells the story of Elle Woods, a sorority girls who follows her ex-boyfriend in enrolling at Harvard Law in a bid to win him back by attempting to appear more substantial. At first look, people have little faith in Elle’s abilities, but much to their surprise in a dramatic court case Elle successfully defends exercise queen Brooke Wydham in a murder trial against her rich, older husband.

 

CHICAGO THE MUSICAL by Fred Ebb, Bob Fosse and John Kander

In 1924, reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins covered two unrelated murder trials, both of which featured a woman who had been accused of murdering a man. Both women were acquitted. She adapted the stories into a play, Chicago, which was much later adapted into the far better known 1975 musical.

Chicago exploits the jazz-age backdrop to the events in its music, and explores society’s expectations of women.

 

A MAN IN THE GLASS BOOTH by Robert Shaw:

Holocaust survivor Arthur Goldman is now a rich and eccentric industrialist living in luxury in Manhattan. He is kidnapped by Mossad, and taken to Israel to be tried as a Nazi war criminal, accused of running the death camp at which he claimed his family were killed.

Goldman’s own extraordinary defence at trial draws on myriad and far-reaching cultural and historical references, and leaves his identity in question till the end.

Shaw’s play, based on his 1967 novel and adapted with the help of Harold Pinter, was inspired by the trial of Adolf Eichmann.

 

The Scottsboro Boys at the Young Vic

THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS by John Kander, Fred Ebb and David Thompson

In the infamous Scottsboro boys trial of 1931 nine African-American teenagers were accused of raping two white American women on a train. Their accusers make the accusation as a distractive ploy after being recognised as prostitutes by the police. So begins a painfully long trial process, in which their first defence lawyer is useless and a drunk.

 

THE TRIAL OF GOD by Elie Wiesel:

Three minstrels arrive at an inn in the city of Shamgorod. It is Purim, a holiday commemorating the defeat of a planned genocide against Jews. But when they discover that all the city’s Jews have been massacred except for the innkeeper, they decide to put their God on trial for allowing such carnage.

 

How I write plays

kermit

“Keep on writing, even if it’s crap. You can always throw it away later”.

Maybe all writing advice boils down this bit of practical wisdom from Alistair Beaton. We spoke to Alistair and other successful playwrights to ask them about the business of writing. Where does inspiration come from? When is the best time of day to write? What do you do if you get stuck?

Whether you’re a writer, trying to be a writer or are just interested the creative process, we hope you find insight and encouragement. If you’d like to read more, you’ll find the full interviews on the WiT Award website.


ON GETTING STUCK

“Stuck, to me, just means it’s hard, it’s not fun, you don’t want to suffer the shame of writing something terrible… but you just have to get it out, get through it, accept it won’t be perfect the first time”
James Graham (This House)

“Keep on writing, even if it’s crap. You can always throw it away later.”
Alistair Beaton (Feelgood)

“Getting stuck is the sign that I need to step back and create thinking space. It also means that the story might not have the legs I initially thought it had.”
Oladipo Agboluaje (New Nigerians)

James Graham

James Graham

“Stuck is not necessarily quicksand – it’s simply a refusal to move in a certain direction at that time. If I can’t write then I’ll try and watch some brilliant films”
Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Her Naked Skin)

“Often being stuck is because I’ve not thought enough about my intention. I kind of think writer’s block is an invention of people who want to think of themselves as writers but not do any work… It can be avoided by thinking and preparing properly.
Simon Stephens (Curious Incident)

“When I’m stuck I do a lot of violent self-loathing, which is unhelpful, and discussions with my husband, which are very helpful.
Lucy Kirkwood (Chimerica)

“Lots of writers clean when they’re stuck. I don’t. I probably should. I go to the coffee shop. Phone my granny. Do some yoga.”
Jessica Swale (Nell Gwynne)

“I try and write through it. I go ‘off book’ and write around the script. I try stream of consciousness writing in character, or write scenes that I know aren’t part of the story I’m writing but that help to unlock the characters a bit more for me. Sometimes I like that stuff more, and it ends up going into the final piece.”
Suhayla El Bushra (The Suicide)

HOW I WRITE stella

Stella Feehily

 


WHERE INSPIRATION COMES FROM

“The news. And the past”
James Graham

“I write satirically, so I riff off news stories and I observe people and situations.”
Oladipo Agboluaje

“Galleries and museums can be very helpful, so can talking to people. I try to follow my obsessions because if you can’t stop thinking about something you might have to write about it.”
Dawn King (Foxfinder)

“I find a lot of inspiration in true stories. I always think I should keep a notebook of ideas and never do. People’s acts of bravery I find inspiring”
Rebecca Lenkiewicz

Suhayla El Bushra

Suhayla El Bushra

“Previous inspiration has come from teenagers I’ve worked with, my dad, my mum, my upbringing, history books, Greek tragedies, fiction, cinema. Some music videos I find really inspiring. Listening to music while running. Eavesdropping on conversations on trains and buses.”
Suhayla El Bushra

Blue Stockings, my first play, came from a detail in the research I was doing on another project entirely. I was reading about the life prospects of women in the 1800s to help an actress with her character, and I stumbled across the fact that women weren’t given access to University. The whole thing grew from there.”
Jessica Swale

“People talk about inspiration like an event but I think it is more of a cumulative thing, the gradual synthesis of different ideas and emotions and ambitions until there is something interesting and concrete enough to provoke a play.”
Lucy Kirkwood

“My inspiration usually comes from a feeling that there’s more to something than meets the eye, and I want to find out what that is. I also have an inbuilt distrust of authority and want to know what’s really going on.”
Robin Soans (Talking to Terrorists)


WHERE AND WHEN TO WRITE

“I split up working at home and working out of the house in cafes, because I get bored of being in the same place and I find if I move locations I can often squeeze out another couple of hours.”
Dawn King

“Usually after the 10 o’clock news and then through to the early hours. I’m often close to a state of dreaming. I’m not sure how helpful that is though. Sometimes I fall asleep…”
Stella Feehily (This May Hurt A Bit)

HOW I WRITE oladipo

Oladipo Agboluaje

“I have a lot of creative mental activity in the fuzzy area between sleeping and waking, and so have a burst of outpouring when I first reach the computer, probably before breakfast… I will go on writing through the day, but that initial burst is always the best and most productive. I usually write to music: Always Bach in the morning, then through Handel, Mozart, Haydn, Mendelssohn, into Schubert and Mahler, Verdi, Tchaikovsky late afternoon, and if I’m burning the midnight oil, either Elizabethan polyphonic music, Plainsong, or Indian mystic music.”
Robin Soans

“I write any time of day. I’m more of an inspiration than a perspiration writer. If the spirit doesn’t move me, no time of day is ideal.”
Oladipo Agboluaje

“I rent a portacabin… it has far less distractions than at home. Cafes can be good; trains if my brain says yes.”
Rebecca Lenkiewicz

“Nine o’clock till lunch weekdays when it goes badly; nine till five weekdays when it goes well”
David Hare (Plenty)

“I can write anywhere. At the moment I am enjoying writing in my kitchen with my puppy at my feet”
Simon Stephens.


PROCRASTINATION

“I’m addicted to Facebook. It can be a nice break if you work from home as it’s the equivalent of having a chat around the water cooler, but you can end up staring at the screen numbly scrolling, or wasting time and energy arguing with people you don’t know very well about contentious political issues or what the best Bananarama single was.”
Suhayla El Bushra

“I don’t have a smartphone and only check emails once a day – sometimes once every couple of days if I am really in the trenches with something. This isn’t something I’m proud of, I think other people find it easier to juggle things”
Lucy Kirkwood

Jessica Swale

Jessica Swale

“I realised a short time ago that procrastination was a fundamental part of the job. I set myself rigorous deadlines and compartmentalise the objectives of each working day strictly according to meet those plans. I know what I want to achieve each day. I can procrastinate as much as I like as long as I hit those objectives. Sometimes the objective might be writing a number of scenes. Sometimes refining a plan or doing a redraft. But I never miss the objective.”
Simon Stephens

“I give myself restrictions. So, for example, I will only read three of the ten Guardian leading news stories before I start work. I’ll answer one email but will not get distracted by funny videos on You Tube… I’ll review what I’ve already written but if I’ve got a distance to go I won’t allow myself to edit – I keep going. Plus, I sort of believe in procrastination. Sometimes an idea pops up when you are unnecessarily dusting the skirting boards.”
Stella Feehily

 


 

ON CALLING YOURSELF A WRITER

“I still blush or feel like a fraud when I have to say what I do now to strangers. I don’t know why. No one should.”
James Graham

“My first review ever was in Plays and Players. “The most pointless evening I have ever spent in a theatre”. I knew I was a writer then.”
David Hare

Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage - Robin Soan - 21 January 2015 co-produced by Out of Joint and National Theatre of Wales members of the cast rehearse for national tour of new play about rugby player Gareth Thomas, the world’s most prominent gay sportsman.

Robin Soans

“Getting the type-set proofs of my first play from Nick Hern Books. It was very exciting. It was the first time that I felt like a writer.”
Stella Feehily

“I remember being asked my profession was when I registered at a new doctor’s in 2000, and I was resident dramatist at the Royal Court and I said “writer” and that felt great.”
Simon Stephens

“I remember hearing my name on the radio for the first time, following a sketch I had written, and was stunned with what felt like sudden fame.”
Alistair Beaton


WHEN IS A PLAY FINISHED?

“You never know. That’s why deadlines are essential. They stop you from tinkering and force you to commit.”
Simon Stephens

“When intelligent actors can’t find any more questions to ask. The greatest moment in playwriting is when the actors take it out of your hands.”
David Hare

HOW I WRITE david

David Hare

“It never really is. I sit there at the first night noticing the little things I should have improved”
Alistair Beaton

“When your actor says ‘I don’t want anymore lines’.”
Stella Feehily

“You can tell when a draft is finished. That’s usually when you feel you’ve done all you can for now and you need someone else to cast a fresh eye on it. But I don’t know that a play ever feels finished…  you just have to let it go and move on to the next project.”
Suhayla El Bushra

“A play is only ever the recipe not the finished cake. But I know when it’s ‘finished’, as in I’ll let people look at it and judge it when I can’t think of anything else to do to it to improve it.”
Dawn King

“A reticence to change any of it is the closest I can feel to “it’s finished.” When you’re moved by it and you don’t want to change it, it’s a good guide to down tools.”
Rebecca Lenkiewicz 

 

Find the complete interviews on the WiT Award website.

 

Back to the future: Max Stafford-Clark on three major Autumn revivals

Black and white photo of two men in restoration wigs and clothes.

Out of Joint and the Royal Court’s production of The Libertine. Photo by John Haynes

Our artistic director MAX STAFFORD-CLARK introduces three plays which started life as Out of Joint commissions, and are now shining bright in new productions this autumn. 

It’s always validating when a play you commission gets a further life and becomes part of the national repertoire. And strange, too, seeing someone else’s take on something I’m that close to.

This autumn there are major revivals of three plays that were commissioned and first produced by Out of Joint. The Libertine by Stephen Jeffreys comes to the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, with Dominic Cooper in the title role. Caryl Churchill’s experimental Blue Heart is being produced by Bristol’s Tobacco Factory and the Orange Tree in Richmond. And the Lyric Hammersmith is giving a big new production of Shopping and F***ing by Mark Ravenhill.


SHOPPING AND F***ING by Mark Ravenhill

Two young men in animated conversation in front of a neon sign saying "home"

Out of Joint and the Royal Court Theatre’s production of Shopping and F***ing. Photo by John Haynes.

I went to a scratch night of new theatre writing, at which Mark presented a short play called Fist. Twenty minutes, very rude. I don’t remember much more than that apart from thinking he had a fresh voice and could command attention.

I told Mark, if you ever write something longer, send it to me. He said that he already had something he’d show me. I heard nothing for months so I decided to seek him out – I tracked him down to the Salisbury Playhouse education department where he was working. “Where’s my play?” He’d been lying – there was no play. But eventually he got a draft together and sent it to me, and I gave him £250 or something to develop it.

I had to do some convincing. Sonia Friedman, who was Out of Joint’s founding producer, was dead against it because she thought it would ruin our chances of any Arts Council funding. It started at the Royal Court upstairs, playing to fifty-something punters a night, and went on to play two West End runs. But perhaps more remarkably, I can see from my diary that on its first tour, Shopping and F***ing also played to over 350 people a night in Bury St Edmunds.

Meet Mark and Max at Out of Joint’s special fundraising event on 3 November

Buy Mark Ravenhill: Plays 1 at a special price from our shop.

Two young men on a sofa, one holding a script

David Moorst and Alex Arnold rehearse in the Lyric Hammersmith’s production of Shopping and F***ing. Photo by Helen Murray

Sean Holmes, director of Shopping & F***ing at the Lyric Hammersmith: 

I’d seen Max’s production but I hadn’t read it for a long time and I was taken by how prophetic it is. One of the characters talks about how there used to be big stories and big ideas, but now we’re making up our own little stories instead. That’s become true with the way we present edited versions of our lives on social media.

We’re a lot further on now from the fall of the Berlin Wall than when it was written. We live in a world with one system now, global capitalism, and that affects our behaviour and responses, whether that’s Trump or Corbyn or radical ideologies.

It remains a shocking play, but it’s not as violent or even sexual as people think. It’s the humour and the message that are subversive. I’m not directing it as a period piece. That doesn’t mean we’re filling it with iPhones, but we’re making a world that reflects today’s concerns. We’re transforming the auditorium and stage into a big studio or arena, so it’ll be very presentational, very aware of the audience.

Meet Sean, Mark and Max at Out of Joint’s special fundraising event on 3 November


THE LIBERTINE by Stephen Jeffreys

Johnny Depp dressed in restoration costume and long wig

Johnny Depp in the 2004 film of The Libertine

Poster for The Libertine, with actor Dominic Cooper reclining with semi-undressed young women

Poster for the 2016 production of The Libertine

I’ve enjoyed pairing new plays with revivals of classics a number of times and in this case I wanted to do something about the second Earl of Rochester to play in rep with the restoration play The Man of Mode.

Rochester had been the model for that play’s rakish central character, Dorimant. He was a courtier to Charles II, and a writer of brilliantly robust poems. His A Ramble in St James’s Park begins “Much wine had passed, with grave discourse / Of who fucks who, and who does worse”. I was going to commission Heathcote Williams, and mentioned the idea at a Royal Court script meeting. Stephen Jeffreys was also on the literary team and he jumped in saying “No that’s my area Max. Let me do it.”

It was later made into a film starring Johnny Depp, though for me nothing will beat David Westhead’s performance in our production.


BLUE HEART by Caryl Churchill

A middle aged woman and man at a dinner table look astonished at an ostrich

Out of Joint’s production of Blue Heart. Photo by Donald Cooper

I’d worked with Caryl on Top Girls and Serious Money at the Royal Court – they were both big hits – and before that, Cloud Nine with Joint Stock. When I commissioned Blue Heart there was no brief or suggestion on my part, just an invitation to Caryl to write something for us.

The script, which consisted of two short plays, was a surprise. Heart’s Desire is about the anticipated arrival of a woman coming home to visit her family from Australia where she has lived for many years. Blue Kettle is about a conman who seeks out women who gave up children for adoption and convinces them that he’s the son they gave away. Good dramatic situations, both, but what distinguished them was the way the plays themselves begin to break down or implode, as though there was a bug in the text – and because of that you became very aware of the text itself.

In Blue Kettle, the language becomes corrupted as the words “blue” and “kettle” start to replace the words that you’d expect until the language becomes meaningless. In Heart’s Desire, the play keeps restarting or “resetting” to earlier points in the story, with surreal moments intruding. At one point, gunmen break in to the very domestic scene. Later, characters answer the door to find an ostrich waiting to enter – probably the best costume I’ve ever commissioned.

There’s also a brief moment when a crowd of children run on shrieking and run off again almost immediately, so I had to rehearse a dozen kids in every venue we toured to – and we did a substantial international tour. An observation: the kids in Catholic countries were very well behaved. Finnish children were chaotic, perhaps because they start school later. In Israel it was like directing the Old Testiment. “Rebecca, come out of that cupboard. Ishmael, stop chasing Malachi…”

Blue Heart marked the beginning of a period of formal experimentation for Caryl that has continued even to her most recent plays. She talked at the time of “anti plays”. You could call Blue Heart “the plays that go wrong”.

Two men and two women drink wine around a table on a stage set

The 2016 production of Blue Heart by Tobacco Factory Theatres and the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond. Photo by The Other Richard.

David Mercatali, director of the 2016 revival:

I was told about Blue Heart by Out of Joint alumni Barney Norris two years ago. I read it and thought ‘I have to get this on, it’s extraordinary’. It’s a huge logistical challenge, but the Orange Tree and Tobacco Factory Theatres were brave enough to take it on. It marked a change in direction for Caryl and you can see the influence on work like Escaped Alone. I wanted to bring it back into the conversation. The plays are like much of Caryl’s work: a simple conceit presented in such a bold, theatrical way that your brain goes on overload. I felt I had got a handle on them when I first read them, but a conversation with Caryl where she mentioned the word ‘virus’ made things much clearer. I’ll say no more than that!

There are two levels to the plays. We had to formulate the ‘facts’, to work out the straightforward domestic stories in both. We devoted time to that, like any other shows. The language breakdowns and resets we accepted on their own terms, and required much more of a technical process. It was exhausting but fulfilling work.

There are lots of Caryl’s plays I’d like to direct. Cloud Nine was one the best theatrical experiences I have ever had, Far Away is a great influence, Fen is a sometimes overlooked gem. I would be lucky to get to do any of them.

Paul Miller, Artistic Director of the Orange Tree Theatre

I remember seeing Out of Joint’s first production so well, and being blown away by the audacity of the pieces, and how very very funny they were, as much as anything. So I’d been surprised that the plays hadn’t been revived much until now. And I became more and more aware over time of how very influential these particular pieces were on a whole new generation of playwrights. The play questions its own nature, and that feels very contemporary. It’s right for the Orange Tree because we look at the present day and we look to the recent past. So a theatre that does plays by Alastair McDowall, Zoe Cooper and Alice Birch, for example, certainly seems the right place to see these pieces in.


The Libertine by Stephen Jeffreys
Theatre Royal Haymarket, London to 3 December

Blue Heart by Caryl Churchill
Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol, to 1 October
Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, 13 Oct – 19 Nov

Shopping & F***ing by Mark Ravenhill
Lyric Hammersmith, London, 7 Oct – 5 Nov
Meet Mark and Max at our special fundraising event on 3 November

Buy Mark Ravenhill: Plays 1 at a special price from our shop.

Corbyn & May in the spotlight: read short satirical plays by top writers

Exclusive: read short new plays by Alistair Beaton, Stella Feehily and David Hare.

Sarah Alexander in The Accidental Leader. Photo by Robert Workman

“Oh, I do love your centre ground. Sounds so reasonable, doesn’t it? The centre ground. But does the centre ground stay in the same place? I don’t think so.”
– The Accidental Leader

READ THE PLAYS:

Alistair Beaton: The Accidental Leader
Stella Feehily: How To Get Ahead In Politics
David Hare: Ayn Rand Takes A Stand

In May we opened a show called A View From Islington North*, comprising short political satires. Here we publish three of the scripts in full, with the kind permission of writers Alistair Beaton, Stella Feehily and David Hare. We think they make for a funny, exasperating and illuminating read.

One proved uncannily prescient: Alistair Beaton’s The Accidental Leader imagined a Labour MP orchestrating a mass resignation of shadow cabinet members in protest at the party’s Corbyn-like leader. We could barely believe it when in late June, towards the end of our run, this happened in real life almost exactly as Alistair had written it, to the extent that people who saw the play subsequently got in touch to ask if it had been hastily rewritten. We hadn’t changed a word. Alistair’s play brilliantly articulates the debate in the Labour Party today: the arguments over its soul, its mission, its achievements and the compromises it must make to gain power.

In the highly imaginative Ayn Rand Takes A Stand, David Hare puts the then home secretary Theresa May on stage in a searing piece that found a deep contradiction in her political philosophy. It’s well worth a read now she’s the boss.

And Stella Feehily’s gloriously cynical How To Get Ahead In Politics was inspired by accusations of bullying and sexual harassment within the Conservative Party and sees a Chief Whip practising his dark arts to contain a scandal.

READ THE PLAYS:

Alistair Beaton: The Accidental Leader
Stella Feehily: How To Get Ahead In Politics
David Hare: Ayn Rand Takes A Stand

SEE ALSO:

A brief history of satire
Can laughter change the world? Satirists on satire

*Islington North is Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency – and it’s also where Out of Joint is based!


If you’ve enjoyed reading (or seeing) these plays, please consider making a small gift to Out of Joint.

Donate with JustGiving GiftAid

The Accidental Leader & Corbyn – how fiction became reality

A middle aged man in suit and tie using a mobile phone and holding a piece of paper

Bruce Alexander in The Accidental Leader by Alistair Beaton. Photo by Robert Workman.

The Chambers English Dictionary defines ‘plot’ variously as a conspiracy: a stratagem or secret contrivance and: the story or scheme of connected events running through a play, novel etc.

Imagine my astonishment to find those two definitions of ‘plot’ suddenly merging. The dust had scarcely settled from David Cameron’s successful attempt to blow up Britain, when I started receiving puzzled enquiries from theatre-goers attending my short play THE ACCIDENTAL LEADER currently running at the Arts Theatre in London’s West End. People couldn’t understand how the play could have been written in 24 hours.

It wasn’t, of course.

Written several months ago, THE ACCIDENTAL LEADER tells the tale of a plot to oust a bearded, left-wing allotment-loving politician whose parliamentary party have lost all faith in his ability to win the next election. I wrote the play because I felt the election of Jeremy Corbyn was both a moment of hope (the end of politics as merely a version of management) and a moment of high anxiety (can a decent old leftie backbencher hack it as a modern leader?) and, like many people, was unsure about the outcome.

In the play, the plotters meet secretly to arrange the coup. Their strategy is simple. In order to make the event appear spontaneous (yes, they are perhaps a bit naïve) they plan to resign one by one over the space of a single day. Two of the plotters talk:

JIM: It’s been one of the great weaknesses of our party, Eleanor. 

ELEANOR: What has?

JIM: We’re too sentimental. We should be as ruthless as the other lot. They know a loser when they see one. Anyway, tomorrow you say whatever you want. That’s up to you. The main thing is – you resign. By 8pm tomorrow, we’ll have had eleven resignations from the shadow cabinet. He’ll be gone by midnight.

Alistair Beaton

Alistair Beaton

But the leader fights back. His heavies twist arms to breaking point. What happens next I don’t want to say. There are still tickets left for this, the last week of the run, and I’d like to suggest you go along and find out how it ends.

As to how the real-life drama ends, well, at the time of writing, the man’s still in post. Though not, I suspect, for much longer. The lesson? Integrity is not enough. Authenticity is not enough. As we watch our politicians lie about the lies they told during the campaign, Labour needs a leader who can fight and win an election later this year. Otherwise it’s goodbye Britain, hello Borisland. I shudder.

Alistair Beaton. 27 June 2016

THE ACCIDENTAL LEADER is part of a five-play production entitled A VIEW FROM ISLINGTON NORTH, running at the Arts Theatre London. Ends Saturday.

 

 

 

 

“You can be hated but you mustn’t be laughed at”

a caricature puppet of Margaret Thatcher at a war meeting with colleagues, at a table with miniature military figures and vehicles, from the Spitting Image tv show

Spitting Image (ITV/Rex/Shuttersock)

Is laughing at politics a catalyst for change – or a substitute? With A View From Islington North about to open in the West End, we asked three brilliant satirists about the relationship between comedy and politics.

JONATHAN LYNN co-wrote Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. He wrote and directed Clue and Nuns on the Run and has directed films including The Whole Nine YardsJOLYON RUBINSTEIN has won a BAFTA for writing and performing BBC3’s The Revolution Will Be Televised alongside Heydon Prowse. ALISTAIR BEATON wrote for Spitting Image and Not The Nine O’Clock News, and penned the TV films The Trail of Tony Blair and A Very Social Secretary. His play The Accidental Leader is premiered in A View From Islington North (the title of this article is a quote from the play).

Why does politics lend itself so well to comedy?

A young man in dark-rimmed glasses brandishing a video camera as if it was a gun

Jolyon Rubinstein

Jonathan Lynn: Insincerity, hypocrisy, self-righteousness, dishonesty and corruption are the ingredients of political activity. When these qualities are revealed in those who tell us how to live, what to think and what to do, the pleasure is irresistible.

Jolyon Rubinstein: Because the powerful dressing up the pursuit of their own rampant self interest as logical for the great unwashed is hilarious.

Alistair Beaton: Because it’s so serious. Its very hard to be funny about something that’s already funny.

What or who is ripe for satirical treatment at the moment?

JL: The target never changes: anyone who wants power over their fellow citizens.

JR: The left and right seem to both be simultaneously exploring their most extreme nether regions. Trump & sadly Zac Goldsmith seem to have ushered in the normalisation of open ‘no offence’ racism; whilst Sanders & Corbyn seem to have shown that collectivist, bottom-up hope needs silver hair and wrinkles to be considered authentic.

AB: Just about anyone who hasn’t yet faced up to climate change.

Tell us a piece of satire or political comedy you’ve particularly admired?

JL: The Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol.

JR: Chris Morris and Brass Eye were a big influence on us.

AB: I love the savage intelligence of cartoonists such as Chris Riddell and Steve Bell. Going back in time, it’s hard to beat the Latin poets. Catullus is is up there with the best; he’s witty, filthy and fearless. Nowadays he’d probably be sued for libel.

close up of a man with a white beard smiling

Jonathan Lynn

Do you think satire has a purpose beyond entertainment – and do you think it ever succeeds?

JL: Satire is comedy with a purpose: it seeks to change society. But if it ever succeeds, which I doubt, the success is superficial and brief. Seven years of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister produced many laughs and some understanding of the way we’re governed – but no change for the better. I can’t think of a play that ever changed anything but that doesn’t mean there’s no point in making the effort: art is criticism of life and satire is criticism of life by ridicule. Absolutely necessary.

JR: Yes I do. Satire’s job is to ridicule the powerful by highlighting the absurdity of their deeds and actions. I think once you see the balloon of the most powerful pop we are all empowered. It reminds us that they are in fact just like us and that’s empowering.

AB: I’m not sure satire changes anything, but at the very least it fosters outrage – and gives heart to the losers.

Do you think there’s anything specific or unique about how the British portray the establishment?

a middle aged man smiling and leaning on a banister

Alistair Beaton

JL: British politicians are in trouble if they are perceived as having no sense of humour. We can get away with much more than satirists in many other countries because every politician dreads not being seen as a ‘good sport’. So satirists don’t get jailed or shot. Instead, the establishment embraces us, flatters us, and hands out OBEs and knighthoods to writers and comedians who are seen as a potential threat. Satirists are thus made part of the establishment, which is a much more sophisticated way of neutering them.

JR: Not particularly. We have a uniquely consolidated ‘establishment’ in London. It runs through the highest echelons of all our major industries and it’s as tightly kit as it’s ever been. Our establishment think they’ve won. They are vitriolic and have reframed their self interest as good for all of us, just like George Orwell said they would.

AB: There’s a healthy British tradition of irreverence towards power. But curiously, it’s mixed with a sickly respect for outdated institutions. What other country would fail to abolish the House of Lords? (Not to mention the House of Windsor).

Steamy scenes – trains in theatre

blog - barnum

You can’t see the steam train that comes to a halt, hissing and clanking, in the middle of the auditorium during All That Fall – theatre-goers are blindfolded throughout. But you’d swear it was there, thanks to Dyfan Jones’ nine-directional sound design.

Beckett’s radio play tells the story of a woman’s arduous journey to a rural station to meet her blind husband, and the train’s mysterious delay. Its director, Max Stafford-Clark, is a big train aficionado (an impressive model railway takes up his spare bedroom).

Trains cast a strong spell– steam trains especially. Railway and miniature railway expert Tim Dunn suggests “They’re the closest we’ve come to creating life; and the need all the elements – fire, air, water and coal from the earth.”

Here are some other wheeled stars of the stage:

 

THE RAILWAY CHILDREN 

The York Theatre Royal/National Rail Museum production of The Railway Children, now at King's Cross

The York Theatre Royal/National Rail Museum production of The Railway Children, now at King’s Cross

York Theatre Royal teamed up with the city’s National Rail Museum for this successful adaptation of E. Nesbit’s novel, in a production whose undoubted star is a real steam train which chugs into the theatre. The show, staged around a railway track, moved to the old Eurostar terminal at Waterloo station before arriving at Kings Cross in a purpose built theatre.

 

STARLIGHT EXPRESS

Blog - starlight

The current, long-running production of Starlight Express in Bochum, Germany

A sort of gender-reversed Cinderella story (it was actually more… complicated than that, gender-wise: engines were male, coaches were female), Andrew Lloyd Webber and Richard Stilgoe’s musical pitted an underdog steam engine against arrogant and cheating electric and diesel engines in a racing competition. Choreographer Arlene Phillips sent the cast hurtling around a transformed Apollo Victoria theatre that was kitted out with multi-level tracks and a huge, moving bridge by the designer-supreme of 80s behemoth musicals John Napier. For a show that romanticised old technology it wasn’t shy about embracing the shiny and new. As such it’s unlikely to have a fringe theatre revival any time soon – but we’re only saying that in the hope that someone is inspired to try it. Roller Disco anyone?

 

PRAIRIE DU CHIEN

Another piece that was first written for radio, David Mamet’s claustrophobic, creepy one-act play is set on a night train crossing Wisconsin in 1910. As his fellow passengers gamble over an increasingly fraught game of cards, a travelling salesman recounts a story of murder and jealousy with a paranormal twist.

 

THE DUTCHMAN

A production of Dutchman at the Cherry Lane Theatre, New York

A production of Dutchman at the Cherry Lane Theatre, New York

Set entirely on a New York subway car, Amiri Baraka’s 1964 play (written under his birth name, LeRoi Jones), uses a charged encounter between a white woman and a black man to look at race relations. A 2013 revival was staged in the Russian and Turkish Baths in New York’s East Village, performed by skimpily glad actors to bathrobed audience members.

 

THE PERMANENT WAY

The Permanent Way

The Permanent Way

One of the most successful stage documentaries, David Hare’s verbatim play (for Out of Joint and the National Theatre) examined the 1990s privatisation of Britain’s railways and its consequences, as told through the series of four rail crashes that happened in its wake. “Like Groundhog Day” was the memorable, chilling observation. William Dudley’s set featured metal railway gantries framing a giant screen that initially brought to charming life an old steam railway poster (cue affectionate gasps from the audience); became an increasingly ominous departure board; and appeared to smash to pieces as a CGI train crashed through it while coming off the rails.

 

THE GHOST TRAIN

Told By An Idiot's production of The Ghost Train used foley-type live sound effects to create train noises and other sounds

Told By An Idiot’s production of The Ghost Train used foley-type live sound effects to create train noises and other sounds

[SPOILER ALERT] Arnold Ridley’s 1923 thriller is set in the waiting room of a remote station, supposedly haunted by a ghost train that dooms anyone who sees it to death. It turns out that the train is real, and being used to smuggle arms (Enid Blyton used a similar device in her Famous Five novel Five Go Off To Camp). Ridley was inspired to write it after being stranded overnight at a station.

 

ETTA JENKS

Marlane Mayer’s play is about a young woman who arrives in Hollywood with dreams of fame, and achieves it – by becoming a porn star. It opens with her arrival by train at the Los Angelis train terminal.

 

BRIEF ENCOUNTER

Kneehigh's adaptation of Brief Encounter

Kneehigh’s adaptation of Brief Encounter

Kneehigh theatre company brought Noel Coward and David Lean’s iconic station romance to life in an production at Cinema Haymarket, in which live actors interacted magically with newly-shot film footage.

 

All That Fall plays at the Arts Theatre, West End, from 13 April to 14 May 2016 following sell-out performances at Wilton’s Music Hall and Bristol Old Vic.