Ayub Khan Din: my family in East is East – and other stories

Din, Ayub KhantActor-turned-playwright Ayub Khan Din is currently playing the role inspired by his own father in a West End revival of his play East is East. Here he reveals how all the plays in a new collection of his work have drawn on his own experience and his turbulent relationship with his family…

I began writing East is East in 1982 in my first year in drama school. It had never occurred to me that I might end up becoming a playwright – but realising early on that there were so few parts for Asian actors, plus a dramatic turn of events at home, pushed me to start writing what eventually would become East is East.

Jobs for Asian actors at that time were few and far between and mostly consisted of race-crime victims and corner-shop owners, even then only as backdrops to the main event. The only real storylines that interested the programme-makers always centred on arranged marriages, where the girl was being forced into a relationship not of her choosing. Though this was an important issue, and still is today, in my case it was my brothers who were the victims and the perpetrator was my father, who himself had chosen to marry an Englishwoman.

The dramatic event on the home front was that my mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the age of fifty-five. It seemed that every time I returned home to Salford, the disease had progressed and huge chunks of our lives were being eaten away and lost for ever. She was the only common denominator between my father and his estranged children, so even more reason to start writing things down before it was too late. I don’t think I ever asked either of my parents any pertinent questions about their relationship. Why they did the things they did? Why they married? Why did he decide to marry an Englishwoman, even though he already had a wife and two daughters in Pakistan, whom he always considered his family?

East is East - the new edition published alongside the revival at Trafalgar Studios

East is East – new edition published alongside the revival at Trafalgar Studios

A million questions any writer should have asked for research. But I didn’t. It’s not what we talked about in my family. In fact, we really didn’t talk about anything. We never questioned my father or any of the decisions he made. The TV blared loudly in the corner, and we did as we were told.

As my older siblings decided that my father’s way of life wasn’t the life they wanted, there would be conflicts and banishments. My mother always defended our right to make choices and would be on the receiving end of my father’s physical abuse, all of which I witnessed. It wasn’t all doom and gloom: you learn to live the life you have, because it’s the only life you know and it’s actually perfectly normal to you. We knew what buttons not to press with my father, but inevitably they did get pressed.

Writing East is East took place over a number of years, through drama school and my first acting job with the Tara Arts Theatre Company, an Asian theatre group, where I spent some of my most formative years as an actor. Tara was an ensemble group that devised all its own shows, then toured them up and down the country, playing to diverse audiences. I didn’t know it but I was learning my craft, and how to formulate arguments and develop characters, all of which would add to East is East. It went through a couple of drafts and then got slung in the back of a drawer. I was too busy being a celluloid tart to think about writing.

It was always something I did as a hobby in between acting jobs. Never ever something I showed to anybody. It had a play-reading in 1986 at the Albany Empire purely because I was taking part in a playwriting competition as an actor. I mentioned it to the director and he got me to bring it in. When I got the title role in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid by Hanif Kureishi, which was being directed by Stephen Frears, once again my whore’s eyes turned to dreams of Hollywood and stardom. East is East went back in the drawer.

East is East - the original edition, with Linda Bassett as Ella Khan

East is East – the original edition, with Linda Bassett as Ella Khan

Cut to: 1995 and my friends had set up Tamasha Theatre. Sudha Bhuchar and Kristine Langdon-Smith had been approached by the Royal Court to do a joint production. Kristine and Sudha suggested a two-week workshop to look for and develop new Asian writers. Sudha asked me if I still had East is East.

I did. We did the workshop. I fell in love with writing. The play was chosen. It opened at Birmingham Repertory studio on the 8th October 1996 and the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs on the 19th November 1996. Eventually we were allowed downstairs at the Royal Court in March 1997.

[East is East is revived at the Trafalgar Studios in the West End in a production starring Jane Horrocks as Ella Khan and Ayub Khan Din as George Khan. The production runs until 3 January 2015]

Notes on Falling Leaves

I don’t know why I choose the subjects I write about, I think they choose me. I never set out to write plays with messages, I’m not interested in telling an audience what to think. I prefer my characters to present the truth according to the world they inhabit. I don’t always agree with what they say, but it’s important that they say it. Sometimes they may say things we’d rather not hear, that may be offensive to some, but that’s life. For me the most enjoyable drama should attempt to stimulate argument, thought and debate.

Notes on Falling Leaves - published alongside the Royal Court premiere starring Pam Ferris and Ralf Little

Notes on Falling Leaves – published alongside the Royal Court premiere starring Pam Ferris and Ralf Little

Notes on Falling Leaves [first performed at the Royal Court Theatre Downstairs in February 2004] took me out of my comfort zone. It became a much more abstract play than I had originally intended. As I mentioned earlier, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at an early age and eventually the disease claimed her life after three years. I always found it difficult during the family visits to see her. In my mind, I was never quite sure what it was I was actually visiting… It sounds a harsh and unfeeling statement, but it was made from a place of safety, that I could observe from. I never saw any sign of recognition and really didn’t want to be around her, as I found it too upsetting. I didn’t know how to engage with her on this level.

The first draft of the play started in a very conventional manner. Set on a ward similar to my mother’s, about a group of women all suffering from Alzheimer’s. What struck me about the ward was that the women had led full and active lives. One had been a concert pianist, another a high-ranking official in the Salvation Army, and one woman had been head of Manchester libraries. Then, of course, there was my mother and all she had been through in her life (see East is East).

The idea was always to discover what happened to the women they were. Was there anything left of their personalities? I had the idea that they came alive at night, when no one was around. A magic hour when they became themselves once again. The pianist would play, the Salvation Army officer would talk about God and her faith, the librarian would read, and my mother – my mother would make tea and talk about her children.

It was all very nice and lovely and magical. But it was also a lie. It said nothing of what they were going through and felt totally dishonest about the disease that was slowly destroying them. After about thirty pages of this Hans Christian Alzheimer’s nonsense, I frustratedly deleted it – but was left with a small passage of dialogue. The dialogue was the character of the Mother. There was something in what she said that struck home. I felt that she suddenly had a voice that had expression from wherever her personality had retreated to.

Here was a woman who still had feeling, who was still being affected by the world that was increasingly fading around her, striving to communicate. From that point on I realised that it could be only about her. Her understanding of the world she lived in and what was happening to her through what was left of her personality. And me. About my feelings towards her. About a journey we took together, that altered both our lives for ever.

The play had to be raw, ugly and visceral. I remembered that journey we took. To the doctor’s, when we were told she had Alzheimer’s. How our world suddenly changed. The tables turned and I wasn’t a child any more. She was asked to wait outside. And then they told me. I was nineteen and felt completely useless, alone with this awful knowledge. Outside the world was light and sunny, but the walk back home was dark and would continue to get darker.

In the play, the Mother and son make the same journey, which is seared into both their minds. And heard from both their perspectives. For the Man, it becomes a journey he recreates, the night he returns to the family home for the last time, with a girlfriend he barely knows. Back to a house that is completely familiar to him, nothing changed, everything in its place. But untouched, it sits empty in the shadows, silently waiting the return of the family that will never return.

All the Way Home

photo adjusted

The Din family in Salford (Ayub’s elder brother in his father’s arms)

Yet another piece inspired by family tragedy!

My eldest brother had been diagnosed with cancer and was dying. In his last months we’d all try to make it back to Salford to visit him. It was strange, as it was the first time all ten siblings had been together since childhood. Some of us had been estranged for many years. The Salford we knew had changed. The last bits we recognised were literally being pulled down around our ears. It was no longer the place we grew up in, and, for most of us, escaped from. I say escape, because that is what it felt like. It didn’t mean that we hated Salford, quite the opposite, we all carry a certain nostalgia for the time we lived there. But it would be wrong to think we have the same kind of relationship now. We all change and look at things differently. Particularly with the relationships we have with our past. The Salford we knew was gone, particularly so for the people who left. Not so for the people who stayed behind.

There was such a sense of heightened reality at this time. Everything seemed so vivid, to me. Colours, what people said and the way that they said it. The clichés of death and dying that haunted that environment. The wet dreary weather, the endless stillness as I stood and watched the gush of water from a tap that overflowed into the kettle. The sound of a washing machine, as it filled the silences of a sombre conversation. I felt that I was waiting, not for a death, but a judgement. People asked if I’d spoken to my brother, as if he were going to impart some great critique of my life to date. Had something happened that I wasn’t aware of? Had I said something untoward? Even complete strangers were looking at me knowingly, as if saying, ‘You’d better go and get it off your chest.’

One man had the gall to tell me he hadn’t spoken to my brother, his best friend, since they fell out over East is East! He said it in such a way that it was obvious he held me responsible for this rift. The accusation was left hanging in the air between us. Time stood still, yet again, as I registered the fresh shaving-cut on his chin, the smell of tobacco on his breath and the death’s-head earring hanging from a hairy lobe. The mind boggles as to what their argument was about. Nonetheless, he stood there taking the moral high ground, idiot-like in his expectation, waiting for some kind of apology. Now, here was his big chance to face the creator of the film that initiated the argument, that had destroyed an obviously much-cherished friendship.

‘Oh,’ I said, ‘that was a bit fucking stupid,’ and walked away.

I can only hope that brought him some kind of closure.

All the Way Home [first performed at the Lowry, Salford, in September 2011] is about the clash of the past and present. How the past is always a major contributor to our present and our future. How it informs who we are, the paths we choose to follow and the mistakes we make. It’s a play about a family and their struggle to come to terms with each other. How, inevitably, while facing the death of one of their own, they are compelled to confront their own lives and those of their siblings. Forced to evaluate each other through their own disappointments. What is it that brings them together? What are the things that remain unsaid, boiling below the surface, as they move through the rituals of death? What is it that makes these things eventually erupt?

To Sir, With Love

I was asked, quite by chance, if I’d be interested in adapting this wonderful book [the autobiographical novel by E.R. Braithwaite]. What really resonated for me was the subject of education, of how we teach our children – not just the basics of reading and writing, but how we send them out into the world to become part of society. Something I believe is sadly lacking in today’s world. So many of the theories we have about education today can trace their DNA back to the work of Alex Bloom, the Headmaster of St George-in-the-East, the school on which To Sir, With Love is based.

Some of Bloom’s ideas were revolutionary, but, like most geniuses, Alex Bloom was largely ignored by his own education authorities. However, many of his theories were put into practice by educationalists across post-war Europe.

To Sir, With Love - published alongside the 2013 production

To Sir, With Love – published alongside the 2013 production

To Sir, With Love [first performed at Royal & Derngate, Northampton, in September 2013] is also about our history, the history of Empire and Commonwealth, subjects so many of our young people know little about. It’s the key to understanding who we are and what our place is in today’s Britain.

E.R. Braithwaite understands this: it’s why his story has such relevance to young people of immigrant backgrounds at a time when the Government is telling us how to be British citizens.

It’s important for young white Britain to know that black and Asian Britain has been part of the make-up of this country for centuries. That we are descendants of races who have fought and died for the freedoms that this country now enjoys. We are an essential part of British history and an indivisible part of the fabric of her society, not just as former subjects from across the seas, but as active participants of this nation’s history.

This is one of the lessons Braithwaite used to fight the racism he found in the classroom and which was levelled at him. It was important for him that his kids knew they had a useful place in society, and that their participation in that society was imperative if it was to continue to grow and flourish.

We all have to understand each other’s histories and stories, because it’s only when we do, that we discover that there is so much more that binds us than divides us.


The above is taken from the Foreword to Ayub Khan Din Plays: One, out now from Nick Hern Books. The volume contains the plays East is East, Notes on Falling Leaves, All the Way Home and To Sir, With Love.

To buy your copy now at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – click here.

‘A dark twisting of nostalgia': Enda Walsh on his recent plays, from The Walworth Farce to Ballyturk

Enda Walsh photo by Patrick RedmondAs a new collection of his plays is published alongside the UK premiere of his latest play Ballyturk at the National Theatre, the London-based Irish playwright reflects on new directions in his work…

When we moved from Cork to London – about ten years ago now – we rented a house off the Old Kent Road. My wife Jo got a job at the Independent newspaper and I acquisitioned a box bedroom to write some plays in. I didn’t know many people in London back then – and those I first got to know were working the cash registers in my local Tesco.

On the bus on the way into the city I would pass the roundabout on the Elephant and Castle. Inevitably the bus would stop in heavy traffic and I remember deciding I would write a play about that very spot and about that feeling of being trapped and churned by your environment.

The play – The Walworth Farce – formed itself as a high-octane farce, which was a real surprise as we have no history of that style of performance back in Ireland. I had that image of farce seeping out of the West End and tunnelling under the Thames and finding its way to a tower block – and into the unfortunate lives of these Irishmen who really should be building Britain.

The play quickly wrote in three weeks and as I was writing it I had already decided to write a companion piece called The New Electric Ballroom. Both plays I think of as very Irish – plays about a shared family story where a person visiting will somehow force the truth out of that uncertain history. The New Electric Ballroom was quieter – more elegiac – but again it became about the pressures of the environment on these isolated characters.

Ballyturk Cillian Murphy, Mikel Murfi pic Patrick Redmond

Mikel Murfi in Ballyturk (with Cillian Murphy behind). Photo by Patrick Redmond

Both plays kickstarted my collaboration with Mikel Murfi. I was a huge fan of his work as a director and actor when I saw him in Dublin. He signed up to direct The Walworth Farce for Druid in Ireland, came over to London where we sat in my attic drinking tea and performing the Farce to one another – our combined energy could have powered a small city. Mikel went on to perform as Patsy in The New Electric Ballroom – both plays toured around the world for a few years and their dark twisting of nostalgia seemed to strike a chord – particularly in America.

I’m always surprised how my British contemporaries often write plays directly about the world around them – like theatre is there to dramatise what we see in the news or talk about at dinner parties. It’s very peculiar and at its best it can be powerful and feel vital, I suppose. My one attempt to talk specifically about ‘something that was actually happening’ was in the play Penelope.

Penelope published by Nick Hern Books

Penelope published by Nick Hern Books

When the crash in 2008 decimated the fantasy that Ireland had created for itself, a German theatre in Oberhausen had already approached me and four other European playwrights to each take a section of the Odyssey to adapt. I was reading a lot about Irish bankers and financiers who were either killing themselves or being publicly vilified. I decided to write a play about Penelope’s suitors as they await their collective murder. It became part-situation-comedy, part-existential-scratching – scored by Herb Alpert. Not exactly social commentary then but it was what it was. Mikel directed the English-language premiere and the work I could tell was becoming more visual – a little more abstracted than before.

Two short plays followed – My Friend Duplicity and Room 303. Together – and I can only see it now – the themes of both plays had an effect on my most recent play, Ballyturk.

While the early plays – those in the first volume of my collected plays – were driven by language, I think – the new volume is concerned more with a play’s shape. The Walworth Farce locked the characters in a very mathematical form – shifting them about to the tight rhythms and rules of farce.

Ballyturk production image of Cillian Murphy, photographer Patrick Redmond

Cillian Murphy in Ballyturk. Photo by Patrick Redmond

In Ballyturk, the play is guided by an outside force too. Like the characters, the play feels directionless and lost – thrown from one atmosphere to another. The question of what an audience takes home – what they experience – kept being asked. With Ballyturk we would tell a story – but more significantly we wanted an audience to experience form shifting radically.

Though I’m loath to define it for myself, the work in recent years is changing in other ways too. The process remains the same from when I was in my early twenties – I trust my instincts – the play will find its own shape, its own way.


FormattedThe above is taken from the Foreword to Enda Walsh Plays: Two, out now from Nick Hern Books. The volume contains the plays The Walworth Farce, The New Electric Ballroom, Penelope, Ballyturk and two short plays, My Friend Duplicity and Room 303.

To buy your copy now at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – click here.

Enda Walsh discusses his new play Ballyturk in a National Theatre Platform tonight, Friday 19 September. This event will be followed by a booksigning. For more information, click here.

Geoffrey Beevers: ‘bringing Eliot alive’ – adapting Middlemarch

Beevers, GeoffreyIn addition to his highly successful career as an actor, Geoffrey Beevers is also a writer and director. He has a particular love for George Eliot’s work, having adapted a number of her novels for the stage – most recently Middlemarch, which premiered at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, in 2013. Here, Geoffrey discusses why he was drawn to the project, and how he approached the task of putting this long and multi-faceted story on stage.

I had always been fascinated by the challenge of adapting Middlemarch, and to discover whether it could work on stage. The characters are so rich and their problems so close to our own, in spite of the difference in time – misguided relationships and money worries, future expectations raised and dashed – and it seemed to me to carry a detail of original observation not often portrayed in theatre.

I was also inspired by the thought of bringing Eliot’s language alive for a live audience. On the page, one’s eye can glide over the sentences, and sometimes miss her subtlety and, above all, her sense of humour. People sometimes confess to giving up on George Eliot because they find it ‘heavy’. But, like Shakespeare, her dialogue reveals so much more when spoken aloud and shared; her language dense, but very speakable. And I wanted to include her own distinctive voice, shared by the cast, and her ironic comments on the action as it unfolds.

DOROTHEA. Come and look at my plans for some workers’ cottages. I shall think I’m a great architect!

Dorothea was remarkably clever.

CELIA. But Celia was spoken of as having more common sense.

DOROTHEA. Dorothea was enamoured of intensity and greatness.

BROOKE. She was not yet twenty.

I’ve tried to use only her words throughout.

I’ve always loved the challenge of huge themes in intimate spaces, where the principle must be, not: ‘What can we do with this?’ but: ‘What can we do without? How can we tell this story, as simply as possible, so the story will shine through?’ I wanted to use only a few actors and a minimum of setting, and leave as much as possible to the audience’s imagination.

Scene Four

BROOKE (as he changes into SIR JAMES’S DRIVER). One day,
Dorothea and Celia had been to see the building site for the
new cottages on Sir James’s estate, and were being
driven home.

The table has become an open carriage, a chair the driver’s seat. A cold day. They bump along.

I also believe audiences enjoy the versatility of actors. I relished doubling characters that have dramatic similarities but are, in fact, very different – the indulgent Vincy parents could double with the stricter Garths; the introverted Casaubon with the extrovert Featherstone; the vague Brooke with the focused Bulstrode; Will, who has so much pride, with Fred, who has so little.

Middlemarch Doctor's Story prod shot

The Doctor’s Story, performed at Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond in 2013
Photograph by Robert Day

The shape of the trilogy emerged as I worked on it. I took the three main strands from the book – Dorothea’s story, the Doctor’s story and Fred and Mary’s story (county, town and country) – to make three self-contained plays, each in its own social sphere, with differing attitudes to status and money. I knew I would need certain scenes repeated from one play to the next, as the stories overlapped, but enjoyed the fact that these scenes could be angled differently to meet a different perspective. I also became interested in the structural similarities between the stories. It’s obvious that each is based on a marriage, or a potential marriage, and at least the hint of an ‘eternal triangle’; but each play also has, at its centre, an onstage death which has unexpected repercussions on everything that follows. And it became clear that the third play (a strand sometimes considered more of a lighter subplot in the novel) answers the first two plays, and provides solutions to the problems the protagonists face. Dorothea impulsively leaps into her first marriage, Lydgate drifts into his, both with disastrous results. Each expects something from their partners that they are unable to give, because they have opposite ways of thinking. But Mary waits for Fred until he has found his feet, and they both know each other well enough so they can truly share the same values.

Of course, a trilogy can be no substitute for a great novel. For a start, there is little place in drama for description or philosophical digression. But every examination of a classic should throw up something of interest, if attempted honestly. My aim was to reach, as simply and directly as possible, the dramatic heart of the book, where the characters are tested by their actions; and above all to share with a live audience the compassion, the wit and the irony of George Eliot’s incomparable mind.

The plays in The Middlemarch Trilogy premiered at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, from October 2013, to critical acclaim:

★★★★ – ‘a delight from beginning to end… one of the most captivating literary dramatisations I’ve ever encountered, as rich as a Christmas pudding’ Telegraph

★★★★ – ‘inspired… a terrific achievement’ Evening Standard

★★★★ – ”it has an elegance and wit, and, above all, it’s eminently digestible’ The Times


Tamara von Werthern

Here are a few words from our Performing Rights Manager, Tamara von Werthern:

Dorothea marrying dry old academic Casaubon, despite being better suited to his young cousin Will; Dr Lydgate’s disastrous marriage to beautiful but self-centred Rosamond and childhood sweethearts Fred and Mary whose union is threatened by Fred’s dependance on an as yet unsecured inheritance. From whichever angle you approach this magnificent novel, there’s plenty of drama and wonderfully conflicted characters within it. Each of these three plays can be treated as a complete stand-alone play and offer a unique perspective on the great Middlemarch story. But perform them as a trilogy, and you end up with a multi-faceted masterpiece.

The play can be fluidly and very simply staged, with as little furniture as two chairs, one table and a chaise longue by a cast of at least five women and six men (although there are fifty speaking parts throughout). There are incredibly helpful production notes with the published play trilogy, but in case you need only one of the plays, we are also happy to supply you with print-on-demand scripts for the single play.

FormattedThe performing rights are £69 plus VAT for each stand-alone piece, or £150 plus VAT for the whole trilogy – do apply before rehearsals begin!

We’re delighted to publish the script to Geoffrey Beevers’ The Middlemarch Trilogy, a masterfully realised adaptation of Eliot’s classic novel.

To buy your copy now at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – click here.

‘Every picture tells a story’ – a tribute to Kevin Elyot

Kevin ElyotThe writer Kevin Elyot, best known for his Olivier Award-winning 1994 play My Night With Reg, died last weekend. Here, we pay tribute to Kevin’s life and career, with a look back at Kevin’s early years as a writer, a comment from publisher Nick Hern, and an extract from his most famous play.

Kevin Elyot recalls his Birmingham childhood, his first forays into theatre, and the origins of My Night With Reg.

The choir of St Peter’s in Handsworth, the Birmingham suburb where I spent my early years, consisted of a handful of grownups and myself. On certain Sundays we’d process through the streets with the vicar, carrying a cross, swinging incense and singing hymns. I was quite short at the time. Janet, one of the women, was fairly large. She had a childlike face, curly hair, a kind heart and a simple disposition. She’d regularly plonk herself down next to me in the vestry, both of us in cassock and surplus, and say, ‘Every picture tells a story.’ Then she’d laugh, and I’d smile, but I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about.

My parents often took my sister and me to the theatre: variety bills at the Hippodrome, where the number of the act would be displayed at the side of the stage, and pantomimes and plays at the Rep and the Alexandra. We had a family outing to Stratford when I was about ten to see a matinée of Richard the Third with Christopher Plummer and Eric Porter. That was the start of my love affair with the place: I’d do the hour’s journey on top of the 150 from Birmingham, queue for standing tickets and see shows two or three times. I was addicted, but it was St Peter’s that gave me my first fix.

*

For the briefest time I was taken into the confidence of Peggy Ramsay, the revered literary agent. In her office in Goodwin’s Court I perched on the sofa, where I fondly hoped Joe Orton had sat, and listened to the gossip and her occasional barbed opinions, sometimes of her own clients.

Elyot Four Plays cover

The cover to the anthology
Kevin Elyot: Four Plays

She’d taken me on after reading Coming Clean, my first foray into professional writing. From 1976 to 1984 I’d acted in several productions at the Bush Theatre, and Simon Stokes, one of the artistic directors, had casually suggested I try my hand at a play. I presented them with a script entitled Cosy, which was passed on to their literary manager Sebastian Born. He responded favourably and, largely through his support, it finally opened on 3 November 1982 under the title Coming Clean. Cosy had fallen out of favour – a pity, as I’d always liked the pun on the opera which plays such an important part. I came up with the present title as a necessary compromise after what had proved to be quite a bumpy ride from acceptance to premiere.

The Bush was the perfect space for David Hayman’s intensely intimate production, as Tony tried in vain to come to terms with his ‘open’ relationship with Greg. These were hedonistic times, when the worse that might happen, health-wise, was usually sorted by a trip to the clinic, where you’d pretend not to recognise each other, alarmingly aged in the cruel light of day, and when AIDS was a barely credible rumour filtering from across the Atlantic. The play’s final scene has an elegiac quality – in retrospect, almost a sense of foreboding. When Peggy saw it, she was in tears. ‘That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen,’ she said, disgorging the contents of her handbag on the floor. From then on, it was downhill.

‘lf you don’t write your next play soon, you’ll never write again,’ she warned. Alarmed, I forced out a piece called A Quick One. ‘Rather than write stuff like this,’ she said, ‘you should take up a hobby, like squash.’ Then I thought I’d try my hand at a radio play, According to Plan, which she insisted she wouldn’t be able to sell. I asked Sebastian Born, by now a literary agent with James Sharkey Associates, if he thought he might be able to sell it, which he did. It was transmitted in 1987 on Radio 4, directed by Pat Trueman, with Sheila Reid, Jean Anderson and Tom Wilkinson. Sebastian became my agent and the manuscript of A Quick One disappeared without trace.

I’ve yet to try my hand at squash.

*

One evening in the summer of 1993, alone in a house outside Todi, I thought, ‘So this is how it ends.’

The malaise had begun during what proved to be my last acting job – ironically, a tour of Molière’s The Hypochondriac. The gloom of fetching up in wintry, wet Worthing, or Swindon, or Poole, week after week in a fairly dismal show, was compounded by private fear as I obsessively weighed myself, wondering why the pounds were slowly shedding. By the summer, still refusing medical advice, I insisted on holidaying with friends in Umbria, where I spent most of the time in bed, high on fever and a diet of paracetamol. I even took some old antibiotics I’d come across, which brought me out in a fearful rash. My friends took me to a dermatologist, who, when he saw it, muttered, ‘Bestiale,’ and told me to take a blood test at the hospital in Todi. This I did with no intention of finding out the result.

The evening in question, I noticed a storm threatening on the horizon. It reached the house, cutting off the electricity, so I went outside to the fuse box, a pointless exercise even if I hadn’t had a fever. Back inside, huddled up on the sofa in the dark, I thought, for the first time in my life, that this was it. It wasn’t, but things would never be quite the same again.

Within days of getting home I was hospitalised with pneumonia. The love of family and friends, and the exceptional skill of Margaret Johnson and her team at the Royal Free, pulled me back from the brink – also, quietly but insistently, My Night with Reg, already scheduled for production the following year. Though I learnt later how close I was to snuffing it, I never once, after diagnosis, believed that I wouldn’t pull through. Since then I’ve clung to projects almost like fetishes to keep together body and soul.

My Night with Reg had been a long time coming. I thought of the title in 1983, but didn’t write it until nearly ten years later. In the meantime it started to emerge: a David Bowie concert I’d been to at Bristol’s Colston Hall in 1973; listening to ‘Every Breath You Take’ on the roof of an apartment block overlooking Central Park; the death of a dear friend and the funeral of another – gradually the pieces began to fall into place. In 1991 it was commissioned by Hampstead Theatre. In 1993 they passed on it and Sebastian submitted it to the Royal Court. He got a swift response, and Stephen Daldry, in the process of taking the reins from Max Stafford-Clark, scheduled it for Easter 1994 in the Theatre Upstairs. He suggested Roger Michell should direct it, and our first meeting took place while I was still in the Royal Free. And so it moved forward, and I was determined to see it through. What seemed at times to be so nearly an ending proved, in fact, a beginning.

[Extract from the Foreword to Kevin Elyot: Four Plays]


Nick Hern, who published Kevin’s play My Night With Reg alongside its 1994 Royal Court premiere, pays tribute to Kevin’s contribution both to British theatre and NHB:

My Night With Reg

The cover to the playtext of My Night With Reg, first published alongside its 1994 Royal Court premiere

‘I’ll always be grateful to Kevin Elyot for two principle reasons. One, as the author of some of the wittiest, most poignantly acerbic plays of the 1990s; and two as the inadvertent saviour of Nick Hern Books, which had not long struggled into independent life when My Night With Reg transferred from the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs to the Criterion in the West End where it ran for seven glorious months before transferring again to the Playhouse. Thanks to the Royal Court, Nick Hern Books was supplying the Criterion with programme/texts, and I remember delivering over 5000 copies a month to the stage door throughout the run, thus generating badly needed income for the fledgling NHB.

‘Kevin in person could be as wittily acerbic as his writing. When I read him the draft blurb for a volume of his collected plays which ended, ‘Kevin lives in London near Hampstead Heath’, with a twinkle in his eye he suggested adding,  ‘But doesn’t go there much anymore.’’


Finally, an extract from the final scene of My Night With Reg, Kevin Elyot’s Olivier Award-winning 1994 play:

DANIEL. I tell you, the Heath was so muddy, it was like an ice rink. I was doing Sonja Henie impersonations all over the shop. And I lost a lens! I walked into at least half-a-dozen trees. Tried to go down on one of them. But you know how you get – sort of cock crazy. It was more like Harrods’ sale. You’ve no idea! Well, maybe more British Home Stores, but who cares? There were plenty of bargains in plenty of basements. And beautiful! Even though it was pissing down. I was moved to do a snatch of Titania at one point until an overweight biker insisted on chewing my nipples off. There was even an encampment of the homeless sitting round a pile of sodden twigs. It was like Act Three of Carmen. […] But whatever I do, I can’t get rid of him. Not that I want to, in one sense, but trivial reminders are somehow the most melancholic and I don’t want to be sad. Why should I be? We had a great time together.

My Night With Reg is revived at the Donmar Warehouse, London, this summer, opening on 31 July.

 

Michael Palin: Monty Python as it happened

Palin, Michael_photo John SwannellThe inspiring Monty Python at Work is Michael Palin’s intimate, behind-the-scenes account of the conception and making of the legendary group’s shows, films, books and albums, drawn from his published diaries. Here, the author explains what writer-performers can learn from the book – and read further for extracts from the beginning of the Python journey.

Since the publication of my diaries I’ve received reactions from many people in many different areas of life. Some respond to the family material, particularly those entries dealing with illness and loss. Others find particular interest in locations and shared neighbourhoods, others in political asides, still others in my involvement in transport, and trains in particular. In many ways the most surprising and gratifying response has come from writer-performers, often much younger than myself, who see in my descriptions of the agony and ecstasy of creative work, reassuring parallels in their own experience.

As diaries are about work in progress, rather than achievement explained or reputation gained, they have a directness unvarnished by time. The creation of Monty Python, through the pages of a daily diary, is a nagging reminder of the unglamorous process rather than the glamorous result. I can understand why people in the same line of work might find this helpful. I was often lifted from the gloom of elusive inspiration by reading, in her diaries, that Virginia Woolf had bad days too. Similarly, I’ve been told by aspiring young comedy writers and performers how encouraged they are by the travails of Python.

Michael Palin as a Gumby, during Monty Python filming

When my friend and scrupulous editor, Geoffrey Strachan, asked me if he could extract my Monty Python experiences from the diary into a single compact volume he made much of the fact that this could almost be an educational tool. I wasn’t so sure about that. There’s little point in a Do-It-Yourself Python. Monty Python is what it is and can never be recreated by following steps one, two and three. And Python is a product of its time. The way we did things will never be possible again. But the important thing is that the will to do them and the spirit that created Python is timeless. If this account of the hoops we went through to turn that spirit into reality is instructive and inspirational today then I think it will indeed have proved itself to be some sort of educational tool, albeit in a very silly syllabus.


Below are some extracts from Monty Python at Work. Dating from August 1969 to December 1970, they give a fascinating glimpse into the group’s early days, starting with the filming of the first series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The book as a whole covers the period up to the release of their final film, The Meaning of Life, in 1983.

Thursday, August 31st 1969, Southwold

Out to Covehithe, where we filmed for most of the day. The cliffs are steep and crumbling there and the constant movement of BBC personnel up and down probably speeded coastal erosion by a good few years.

Mother and Father turned up during the morning and appeared as crowd in one of the shots.

In the afternoon heavy dark clouds came up and made filming a little slower. We ended up pushing a dummy newsreader off the harbour wall, and I had to swim out and rescue this drifting newsreader, so it could be used for another shot.

∼ ∼ ∼

Monday, February 16th 1970

Somehow, since Monty Python, it has become difficult to write comedy material for more conventional shows. Monty Python spoilt us in so far as mad flights of fancy, ludicrous changes of direction, absurd premises and the complete illogicality of writing were the rule rather than the exception. The compilation of all the last series, plus new links, into the film script And Now for Something Completely Different has been completed, and the script should be with Roger Hancock. No further news from Victor Lownes III, under whose patronage the work was done.

I am about to start writing Monty Python II, for, as Eric reminded me on the phone today, there are only eleven weeks until we go filming in May, and we are seriously intending to have eleven shows written by then.

∼ ∼ ∼

Sunday, March 8th

We watched David Frost ‘hosting’ the Institute of Television and Film Arts Awards at the London Palladium. Monty Python was nominated for four awards and won two. A special award for the writing, production and performance of the show, and a Craft Guild Award to Terry Gilliam for graphics. But somehow the brusqueness of the programme, and its complete shifting of emphasis away from television and towards Frost and film stars, made the winning of the award quite unexciting.

None of us was invited to the awards ceremony, as the girl who was organising it ‘didn’t know the names of the writers’ of Monty Python.

 ∼ ∼ ∼

Thursday, April 16th

At 10.00, cars arrived to take us to the Lyceum Ballroom off the Strand to be presented with our Weekend TV awards. We were rushed into the stage door, where a few girls with autograph books obviously thought we were somebody, but none of them was quite sure who.

A dinner-jacketed young man with a vacant expression and an autograph book asked me if I was famous. I said no, I wasn’t, but Terry Gilliam was. Gilliam signed Michael Mills’* name, the twit then gave the book to me saying, ‘Well, could I have yours anyway?’

So I signed ‘Michael Mills’ as well. We all signed ‘Michael Mills’ throughout the evening.

[* Michael Mills, Head of Comedy at the BBC, was the man who green-lighted Python in the summer of 1969. Despite a disastrous meeting at which we could give no satisfactory answers to any of his questions, he came out with the memorable words: ‘All right, I’ll give you thirteen shows, but that’s all.’]

∼ ∼ ∼

Monday, May 11th, Torquay

Set out for Torquay and our first two-week filming stretch away from home.

Our hotel, the Gleneagles, was a little out of Torquay, overlooking a beautiful little cove with plenty of trees around. However, Mr Sinclair, the proprietor, seemed to view us from the start as a colossal inconvenience, and when we arrived back from Brixham, at 12.30, having watched the night filming, he just stood and looked at us with a look of self-righteous resentment, of tacit accusation, that I had not seen since my father waited up for me fifteen years ago. Graham tentatively asked for a brandy – the idea was dismissed, and that night, our first in Torquay, we decided to move out of the Gleneagles.*

[* Eric and John decided to stay. In John’s case a lucrative decision as he later based Fawlty Towers on Gleneagles.]

∼ ∼ ∼

Thursday, June 18th

To Camberwell. The morning’s work interrupted by the delivery of a large amount of dung. We were sitting writing at Terry’s marble-topped table under a tree sheltering us from the sun. All rather Mediterranean. Suddenly the dung-carriers appeared. Fat, ruddy-faced, highly conversational and relentlessly cheerful, they carried their steaming goodies and deposited them at the far end of Terry’s garden. After about twenty-five tubfuls they were gone, but at least they left a sketch behind.*

 [* ‘Book of the Month Club Dung’, which found its way into Show 6 of the second series.]

∼ ∼ ∼

Sunday, November 8th

After washing my hair and shaving at 7.00 in the morning, I am driven to work and immediately my hair is caked down with grease and my face given a week’s growth of beard.

Ken Shabby* was especially revolting, with an awful open sore just below the nose. But Terry J (who has seen the rushes) is worried that it was shot with too much emphasis on Shabby and not enough wide shots to create the joke – which is the relationship of this ghastly suppurating apparition to the elegant and tasteful surroundings.

[* Shabby, a disgusting man with a pet goat, who appeals to the father of a beautiful upper-class girl (Connie Booth) for her hand in marriage, but spoils his chances by, among other things, gobbing on the carpet.]

∼ ∼ ∼

Thursday, December 31st

Apart from some dubbing still to do on the film, Monty Python is finished – we spent almost a year on one thirteen-week series and six weeks making a film – now it remains to be discussed as to whether or when we do another series…


Formatted

Monty Python at Work, £9.99

Nick Hern Books are thrilled to publish Monty Python at Work, Michael Palin’s intimate and inspiring behind-the-scenes account of the conception and making of the shows, films, books and albums.

Drawn from his published diaries, it will delight Python fans everywhere, and be a source of instruction and inspiration to students and those who seek to follow in the group’s footsteps.

To order your copy at a 20% discount, no voucher code required, click here.

Michael Palin will be discussing the book at a National Theatre Platform on Monday 2 June, at 6pm – click here to book tickets.

Author photo by John Swannell

 

The Goodale Brothers: the road to Jeeves and Wooster in ‘Perfect Nonsense’

GB1-1A huge success since opening in the West End last year, Jeeves & Wooster in ‘Perfect Nonsense’, the Goodale Brothers’ ingenious play featuring P.G. Wodehouse’s iconic double act, was recently named Best New Comedy at the 2014 Olivier Awards. Here, co-writer Robert Goodale explains how the idea to adapt Wodehouse’s books came about, and the process by which the play came to the stage.

My first taste of P.G. Wodehouse came in my early twenties when my twin brother and a mutual friend of ours used to quote PGW phrases, sentences and extracts back and forth at each other during late night drinking sessions. I was never sure whether it was the whisky, the Wodehouse or a combination of the two that was making me laugh hysterically, but for years my experience of the great man was confined to the blurry hours of the night.

It was only when looking for material for a one-man show that I picked up a Jeeves and Wooster book in the cold light of day and realised what a comic genius Wodehouse really was. I also discovered that some of his best material was being filtered through the mouthpiece of Bertie Wooster. Here was a storyteller, raconteur and Vaudevillian performer who was capable of charming any group of people into submission. Not only was he a perfect front man, but the characters who peopled his world were gloriously eccentric, mad and passionate, all with their bizarre and peculiar obsessions. Twenty pages into Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves and I knew that I had my one-man show.

The idea of indulging in a world where the loss of an objet d’art from your silver collection was perceived as being a matter of life and death could not have been more appealing. So I went ahead and performed a couple of one-man shows based on this material at the Edinburgh Festival and roped in my brother David to direct The Code of The Woosters.

Jeeves and Wooster

The current West End pairing:  Mark Heap as Jeeves and Robert Webb as Wooster

Twenty years later, the two of us were approached by producer Mark Goucher to create another Wodehouse show, but on a larger scale. It dawned on us that if we wanted to keep Bertie as the raconteur we should write a play in which, encouraged by his drinking pals, he would take over a West End theatre and attempt to tell one of his stories in the form of a one-man show. As his loyal valet, Jeeves would naturally accompany Bertie to the theatre and, in the certain knowledge that the show was destined to go horribly wrong, he would have made certain contingency plans. The script almost wrote itself, and we revelled in the idea that the inscrutable and dignified Jeeves might draw on some hidden talents to play a number of the other characters.

We passed ‘Perfect Nonsense’ on to Mark Goucher, did a reading of it for him and in turn the Wodehouse Estate, who gave it their blessing. The wonderfully inventive comedy director Sean Foley was then brought on board, and his inspired suggestions, combined with Alice Power’s brilliant ideas for the set design, helped raise the script to another level.

Although I had absolutely nothing to do with original cast members Stephen Mangan’s or Matthew Macfadyen’s involvement, I was thrilled when they came on board. Having worked with them both at the Royal Shakespeare Company, witnessed their extraordinary comic abilities and observed how well they got on together, there was no question in my mind as to how perfect a pairing they could be.

What was most gratifying about the whole process was that all of the above – along with Mark Hadfield (as Seppings) – were completely in tune with the conceit of the show and a lot of what was discovered in the rehearsal room found its way into the script. A true process of evolution, we like to think.

Jeeves & Wooster cover

Jeeves & Wooster in ‘Perfect Nonsense’, £9.99

Nick Hern Books is proud to publish the hilariously inventive script of Jeeves & Wooster in ‘Perfect Nonsense’, winner of the 2014 Olivier Award for Best New Comedy.

Featuring P.G. Wodehouse’s iconic double act, and written for a cast of three (who play multiple roles), this adaptation will suit any theatre company or drama group looking for a comic play to perform.

To get your copy of the script at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – click here.

Sexting in Parliament: insights from the writer and director of Girls Like That

Girls Like That2.inddBack in January, members of West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Youth Theatre travelled to Westminster to perform an extract from the play Girls Like That in Parliament as part of the launch of YoungMinds Vs, a new children’s mental health campaign.

An urgent and explosive play that explores the pressures on young people today in the wake of advancing technology, Girls Like That tells the story of Scarlett, a secondary school pupil. When a naked photograph of her goes viral, she becomes the centre of attention for all the wrong reasons. But while rumours run wild and everyone forms an opinion, Scarlett just stays silent…

Here, Evan Placey, writer of the play, and Gemma Woffinden, Youth Theatre Director at West Yorkshire Playhouse, offer insights into how the play was developed, the positive impact it has had on both performers and audiences, and what it was like performing Girls Like That to an audience of MPs and celebrities in Parliament.


Evan Placey

Evan Placey

EVAN PLACEY, writer of Girls Like That

And why doesn’t someone do something? Why won’t someone do something?

Why won’t Russell say something, stop this?!

Why does he just.

Stand there.

So say the Girls in Girls Like That as they watch as Scarlett is physically attacked, none of them brave enough to be the one to take action. And later having to contemplate how complicit they are for their inaction.

As scenes from the play were performed in Parliament as part of the YoungMinds Vs campaign, I was reminded of this. What are we doing to combat the pressures young people currently face and how are we taking action?

Any time we write a script, we’re hoping in some way people will listen, that our words might have an effect, that they might shake people. So the opportunity to see parts of my play performed in Parliament was a rare chance: to really get politicians to listen and to shake the people in charge. It’s one thing for those making policy to say they’re doing it in the best interests of young people, but it’s quite another to give those young people a voice – to let them tell the adults what it is that needs to change, the obstacles they’re facing, and the realities of being a young person in the UK at the moment.

The campaign seeks to highlight pressures on young people and the effects on their mental health, and so the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Youth Theatre who performed Girls Like That last year were invited because of the play’s exploration of those same themes. The play explores the fallout when a naked photo is circulated of a teenage girl named Scarlett. But the play also explores her past and that of her group of classmates as we encounter the girls at 5 years old, 8, 11, and 12, piecing together the messages that have been built up in the heads of these young women since they were children and their resulting (lack of) self-esteem. It’s about feminism and empowering young women. It’s about the conversations we’re not having with young people. But ultimately, it’s about collective inaction. The play is told from the perspectives of all the girls around Scarlett. And watching the play in Parliament, the parallel became starkly clear: we, the adults, the politicians, are all as guilty as those girls for what happens to Scarlett.

Watching those young women perform brought home the power of theatre to engage young people. In a time of cuts to the arts, where often work for young people is first to go, I hope it also showed the politicians present the importance of having creative arts for young people’s expression, to ask the questions no one else is asking. And the young people demonstrated such passion and charisma in their performance that I thought we’ll only be so lucky if they turn out to be our future politicians!

It also made me smile that I was responsible for the (first?) discussion of pubic hair in Parliament.

YoungMinds Vs is an important campaign and I’m glad to have played a part in it. And hopefully, in some small way, enabled action.


Gemma Woffinden

Gemma Woffinden

GEMMA WOFFINDEN, Youth Theatre Director at West Yorkshire Playhouse

Formed in September 2012, the West Yorkshire Playhouse Youth Theatre aims to provide a platform for new performance work that responds to the lives of young people and explores the diversity of their experiences, making high-quality work that gives young people a voice and recognises their creative potential and talent.

Combining our commitment to new writing and our desire to respond to the lives of young people, the West Yorkshire Playhouse, in collaboration with the Theatre Royal Plymouth and Birmingham Rep, commissioned Evan Placey to write a new play, a process that consisted of workshops, discussions and improvisation with young people aged 13-16 led by Evan across the three Youth Theatres. Working in this way gave the young casts a real sense of ownership over the play, building a strong working relationship with Evan whilst teasing out universal themes that led to the writing of a relevant and authentic play titled Girls Like That.

I found Girls Like That a gift to direct: lots of roles for female performers, great moments of truth, real tension and clever use of humour. The project allowed Evan to attend several rehearsals and this was a big support to me – as a director it’s so helpful to be able to turn to the playwright and say, ‘do you think the character believes she is doing the right thing?’

Chris Thornton Photography (www.christhorntonphotography.com)

Girls Like That performed by members of West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Youth Theatre
Photo by Chris Thornton

The young people involved in the production engaged with the themes of the play in a way that affected their lives beyond rehearsals. One cast member told me that though she saw the problems that the characters experience in the play all around her, she had never understood that these were issues; she felt that it portrayed ‘normal life and I didn’t believe it could be different’. The play helped her to shape her own opinions about pressures on young women and she believed performing the play would help other people think about the themes too. We had a great response from a range of audience members. Teachers wanted to see the play tour to schools to prompt discussion amongst their students and parents talked to me about how the play had opened up some very important discussions in the car on the way home from the theatre.

YoungMindsElizabeth Neil, from leading UK charity YoungMinds, had been to see Girls Like That with her teenage daughter back in July 2013. YoungMinds is driven by the needs of young people and aims to support their emotional well-being, putting young people at the forefront of leading and delivering campaign objectives to address sexual pressures, bullying, stress at school, unemployment and the lack of access to counselling. Impressed by the quality of the work and moved by the subject matter, Elizabeth contacted Alex Chisholm (WYP’s Literary Director) to discuss how the Youth Theatre could support the charity’s new campaign, YoungMinds Vs, scheduled to be launched on Monday 20th January 2014 at a national parliamentary event in Portcullis House. Elizabeth invited the Youth Theatre to perform at the event and we accepted with great excitement!

It was a challenge to select scenes from the play that best supported the YoungMinds campaign whilst creating a performance that still reflected the full production and presented a true account of Evan’s original narrative. Girls Like That explores a range of pressures felt by young people in today’s society but for the purpose of the campaign launch we focussed on how the play explores the very real sexual pressures felt by young women. I felt a big responsibility, but also felt very proud to be part of this event. It was exciting that the high quality performance work of our Youth Theatre was to be celebrated in such a way that we could support a valuable campaign that acknowledges the challenges faced by young people today.

castonthetrain

Two Girls Like That cast members en route to London

On 20th January our Artistic Director James Brining, Alex Chisholm, Elizabeth Neil, six of the cast members from Girls Like That and I caught the train from Leeds to London. That morning the Fight the Pressure campaign launch was national news, which only added to our excitement and nerves. Once we arrived at Portcullis House that excitement grew further as we spotted a range of celebrities and MPs who were also attending the event, amongst them Ed Miliband (Leader of the Labour Party), Nick Hurd (a Government Minister responsible for Youth Affairs), Sarah Brennan (CEO of YoungMinds), members of Chickenshed Theatre and Frankie Sanford from pop group The Saturdays.

We were last to present and the young people performed with such confidence, pride and professionalism. I was inspired by their ability to stand out amongst so many adults who regularly address big audiences. After the event, I watched the cast talk with passion about their love for making theatre and at one point I overheard some very sophisticated negotiations around a Girls Like That tour (which is unfortunately not realistic without funding). Staff from YoungMinds praised the cast for their enthusiasm for the campaign and described their performance as one of the highlights of the campaign launch.

One of the young people who performed at the event said ‘I think it’s great to have teens share their opinions at Parliament – not only so we can feel heard and listened to, but also because everyone can hear what we have to say about a world which belongs to us just as much as it belongs to adults and politicians’. Taking Girls Like That to a new audience was so rewarding. This thought-provoking play for young people is important on many levels – as well as being a great piece of theatre, it has a gripping story that speaks to today’s generation and forces audiences to sit up and consider the messages that are presented.

Playwright Evan Placey with members of the Girls Like That cast

Nearly a year after its premiere, Girls Like That‘s influence continues to be felt.  I have heard from Youth Theatre members that monologues from the play are being performed at current Drama School auditions and I am still supporting teachers who are keen to use extracts for GCSE and A level exams with their students. We’ve also kept up our link with Evan Placey: last week the Youth Theatre performed his new play Pronoun as part of the National Theatre Connections Festival. Some staff and young activists from YoungMinds came to see the show, so who knows what next…

YoungMinds and the West Yorkshire Playhouse are committed to giving young people a voice, and what better way than through theatre?


Pronoun, £9.99

Nick Hern Books is proud to publish Evan Placey’s urgent and explosive play Girls Like That, as well as his latest play, Pronoun, a moving, funny and unforgettable story about two teenagers dealing with the issue of transgenderism.

To order both of Evan Placey’s plays at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – visit our website here.

YoungMinds is the UK’s leading charity committed to improving the emotional wellbeing and mental health of children and young people. To learn more about their work, visit their website.