A female Scrooge: author Piers Torday on adapting Dickens for today’s stage

PIERS TORDAY, writer of the acclaimed Last Wild series of children’s novels, has adapted Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for Wilton’s Music Hall. Here, he explains why his version, Christmas Carol: A Fairy Tale, reimagines the familiar story, placing Ebenezer’s sister Fan at the heart of the action…

When Charles Dickens published his ‘little Christmas book’ in 1843, it took just six weeks for the first adaptation to reach the stage. It played in London for more than forty nights before transferring to New York. In the year of publication alone, there were nine separate theatrical adaptations, including the first-ever musical version. Dickens himself was famous for his own public readings of the story, giving over 127 such recitals in England and America. And the process of retelling has continued for 176 years. From stage to screen, cartoon to musical, from the RSC to the Muppets, there are nearly thirty published adaptations of A Christmas Carol, and dozens more are written every Christmas. There was even a mime version by Marcel Marceau in 1973.

So why another? Well, whilst the tale has been retold for puppets and toys, and Scrooge performed by men young and old, the central role has remained resolutely masculine. What happens when we re-examine this classic fairy tale from a woman’s perspective, and reimagine the complex central character? And why?

The book is, at heart, a story about injustice. Dickens was horrified by the desperate destitution, especially in children, that he witnessed on his many legendary walks through industrial London. He initially drafted a political pamphlet in reply to an 1843 parliamentary report on working-class child poverty. But the Carol made his point more plangently.

Christmas Carol: A Fairy Tale | Want (Chisara Agor), Meagre (Yana Penrose), Ignorance (Joseph Hardy) | Wilton’s Music Hall, 2019 (photo by Nobby Clark)

Yet he was also no saint. It is perhaps telling that Catherine, his long-suffering wife (who was also a writer), titled her sole publication What Shall We Have for Dinner? She endured twelve pregnancies, bearing him ten children. These took their toll on her body, about which Dickens was privately offensive, and on her mind. Catherine was afflicted by what appears to have been severe post-natal depression, and Dickens responded by first taking up with a young actress, Ellen Ternan, then trying to persuade a doctor that his wife was insane, and should be put away in an asylum so he could continue his philandering unhindered.

Charles Dickens’s daughter Katey said that her father never understood women, and some of his excessively sentimentalised young female characters, like Little Nell in the Old Curiosity Shop, or the long parade of unattractive or damaged older women, such as Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, do not offer a very compelling counterargument to this analysis. But he was also a product of his age, a time of unstinting male power that frequently marginalised the voices of the poor, the indebted, the weak, the vulnerable – and women of all classes.

Christmas Carol: A Fairy Tale | Sally Dexter as Scrooge | Wilton’s Music Hall, 2019 (photo by Nobby Clark)

Christmas Carol is set in an intensely patriarchal society. The most powerful member of it, Queen Victoria, may have been a woman, but she also thought her own sex ‘poor and feeble’, and called for suffragists to be whipped. Her female subjects were expected to put ‘home and hearth’ before all else (often including any education and professional advancement). When she married, the rights of a woman were legally given to her husband. He took control of her property, earnings and money. If he wished to spend her money on his business or his debts, he did not require her consent. In exchange for this, she took his name. And until the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act, divorce allowing remarriage was only possible by the passage of a private act through the Houses of Parliament.

Early nineteenth-century daughters, like the Fan Scrooge that Dickens imagines, were meant to get in line behind their brothers, like Ebenezer. In Dickens’s version, Fan dies early, leaving Ebenezer distraught.

But what if it had been the other way around? What if Fan Scrooge had tried to make her way in a man’s world of power and profit? What would have happened to Fan then?

Dickens wrote this enduring and uplifting story to try to heal the divisions of his own age. He yearned to create ‘a better common understanding among those whose interests are identical and who depend upon each other’. He wanted, in other words, to bring all people together, at a precious time of year, united in a love of the common good. And so do we. Merry Christmas, and God bless us, every one.

Christmas Carol: A Fairy Tale | Want (Chisara Agor), Ignorance (Joseph Hardy) and the Fezziwigs (Yana Penrose & Edward Harrison) | Wilton’s Music Hall, 2019 (photo by Nobby Clark)


Tamara von WerthernFrom the Nick Hern Books Peforming Rights Manager: Piers Torday’s version of A Christmas Carol is a particularly wonderful offering for amateur theatre companies. By putting a woman centre-stage as Scrooge, and swapping the nephew for a niece, he creates two central roles to be played by women. And it’s not just a matter of cross-gender casting – we’re talking about rich and varied female characters who can (in this version) only be played by women. It sticks closely to the spirit of the original, while questioning the historical treatment of women and children (and even animals). I went to see it with an 11 year old, who thought it was brilliant too, and remarked, ‘It’s really clever that Fanny Scrooge actually exists in the original’.

The first production had a cast of 5 women and 3 men, but this can be extended to a very large cast, and one that is weighted towards female performers.

So, if you’re after a fresh take on Dickens, one that celebrates the spirit of Christmas and remints the familiar story so that it speaks directly to us now, this is for you!

If you want any further information, do contact me and my team here, or tel. +44 (0)20 8749 4953.

Tamara von Werthern, Performing Rights Manager, Nick Hern Books


Christmas Carol: A Fairy Tale by Piers Torday is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy for just £7.99 plus postage and packing (20% off the RRP), visit our website.

Christmas Carol is at Wilton’s Music Hall, London, until 4 January 2020. Buy your tickets here.

Production photos by Nobby Clark. Author photo by James Betts.

‘Generosity of the ferocious kind’: Simon Stephens on the late Stephen Jeffreys and his contribution to playwriting

STEPHEN JEFFREYS was an acclaimed playwright and a hugely respected mentor to an entire generation of playwrights who emerged through the Royal Court Theatre while he was Literary Associate there. Amongst them SIMON STEPHENS, who spoke at an event at the Royal Court last weekend to celebrate Stephen’s life and work. Here, in a longer version of the speech he gave, Simon pays tribute to his friend and colleague, and the fearsome intelligence he brought to his work.

A lot has been said about the energy that Stephen brought to his commitment to developing playwriting and working with playwrights. I want to speak briefly on behalf of the playwrights he worked with.

It strikes me that there may be the perception that Stephen’s reading and work and thinking was born out of a beautiful gentleness. I very much want to disillusion anybody who thinks there may have been anything gentle about the way Stephen worked with us.

Simon Stephens

In 2000, I was Resident Dramatist at the Royal Court. At the time, Stephen was Literary Associate. The bulk of our work involved advising Ian Rickson, who was Artistic Director,  about the plays he might choose to produce, at the semi-legendary Friday morning script meetings. I am not somebody who would ever be comfortable describing myself as an intellectual, though neither have there been many occasions in my life when I would describe myself as being quite simply thick. But in those meetings, that is precisely how I felt. And the kernel of that feeling was the ferocious, not gentle, brain of Stephen Jeffreys.

He read like a laser, and spoke with a force and eloquence that left me utterly terrified. Most of my contributions to those meetings very quickly became a timid mutter of ‘Yeah, I think what Stephen thinks’. To be honest, it started making me miserable. The opportunity to be at these meetings was something I had wanted all my life, and the experience was becoming an unhappy one. Until Graham Whybrow, who was Literary Manager, suggested that Stephen might take me for lunch.

I was terrified. It was magnificent. It changed my life.

We spoke for three hours. In those three hours, he talked of my work and the work of this place and his own writing, all with the same intelligence and articulacy and insight. It was during that lunch that I realised that the ferocity I had dreaded in the script meetings was born, not out of cruelty, but out of a faith in the importance of our work.

Stephen Jeffreys could annihilate plays and playwrights with his reading, but he only ever did that when he thought that the playwright wasn’t working properly, or wasn’t taking their art or this place seriously. When he perceived that they were, that ferocity became a ferocious loyalty and faith.

Stephen taught me more about playwriting than anybody I have ever met. He infected me with a sense of the importance of this theatre. He taught and infected not only me, but an entire generation of writers.

Stephen Jeffreys, Masterclass

He wasn’t gentle or frivolous with his wisdom, because he had a deep and serious faith in the importance of theatre as a forum for empathy and humanity, and as a space for the interrogation of the complexity of the human animal. At a time when our national discourse seems shorn of that empathy and humanity, I value his wisdom and teaching more than ever.

He took this art form seriously. He took the work of the playwright seriously. He took this theatre seriously. He taught me that this room, the Royal Court Theatre Downstairs, is the most important room in the world.

There is a great deal I miss about Stephen. Oddly, I miss his hair! Not many men could rock that haircut, but he did. I miss his sparkling smile. Our sons are the same age, and I miss comparing notes on their progression and the love and respect with which he spoke of his family. And I also miss comparing notes on the decline and pathos of our crumbling football teams. I think he would have enjoyed the total collapse of Manchester United, and I secretly miss not having to endure that from him.

But I don’t miss his intelligence or his ferocious, not gentle, generosity. Because I remember it every time I come into this theatre. I remember it every time I write. Generosity of the ferocious kind, intelligence of that force – when it comes, as it always did with Stephen, from grace and love – inevitably survives us. I am honoured to be asked to celebrate it today.


The above is a longer version of a speech delivered by Simon Stephens at a Celebration of Stephen Jeffreys at the Royal Court Theatre on Sunday 29 September 2019. Our thanks to Simon Stephens for his permission to reproduce it here.

Stephen Jeffreys’ book Playwriting: Structure, Character, How and What to Write is published by Nick Hern Books, extracted on our blog here. Click here to buy your copy at a 20% discount.

Author photo by Annabel Arden.

Steve Waters on putting Idi Amin on the stage

Playwright Steve Waters has adapted Giles Foden’s acclaimed novel about Idi Amin, The Last King of Scotland, for the stage, now premiering at Sheffield Theatres. Here, he reflects on the process of adapting the novel, and reveals that it wasn’t until he went to Uganda himself that he realised the true extent of Amin’s legacy, and the instinct of a brutalised nation to forget the horrors inflicted on them by the ‘Butcher of Uganda’…

What is the responsibility of one writer adapting the novel of another, to the reality behind the work? When I first started to shape The Last King of Scotland for the stage, I was content to trust Giles Foden’s account of the world of 1970s Uganda; after all, he had spent many years in the country and his book bristles with evidence of serious research. Part of the power of his novel lies in its detail about that country’s history, landscape, and the shocking yet fascinating facts of Idi Amin’s eight-year reign. Surely my job was just to extract the dialogue and turn the rich prose into spare stage directions?

Yet as I got deeper into the project, I realised this wasn’t good enough. I had to have some skin in the game. After all, as the play took shape, it travelled away from its source and became its own reality. As the thrilling possibility of a production with Sheffield Theatres approached, I realised I couldn’t sit in rehearsals batting away questions by glibly saying, ‘read the book’. This play needed to come from within me as much as from its source.

Tobi Bamtefa and Joyce Omotola in rehearsals for The Last King of Scotland at Sheffield Theatres (photo by Helen Murray)

So last summer I found myself on a flight to Entebbe. Let’s be clear, I’m under no illusion that a week in a distant nation by a white traveller confers on them any real expertise or authority. Whilst my plays are grounded in research, they are also made out of haphazard experiences, conversations, books and hours of browsing YouTube. Now, armed with a Bradt guidebook, a copy of the novel, numerous inoculations and an intermittent phone signal, I tried to track some of the places and events in the book.

I didn’t make it to the Murchison Falls. I didn’t trek up to see the gorillas in the Rwenzori Mountains, or kayak the headwaters of the Nile. My trip was a relatively tame one, but revealing in other ways. The first shock was the invisibility of Amin’s regime after more than thirty years of Yoweri Museveni’s rule. Yes, there are the torture chambers beneath the Twekobe Palace (these I did visit, with the uncomfortable thrill of being a sensation seeker as I made the descent); yes, there is Paradise Island, where Amin was rumoured to have fed his victims to the waiting crocodiles; or the huge avenue named after his loyal supporter Muammar Gaddafi, leading to the vast Kampala Mosque. But no museums, no reckoning, little visual evidence of what occurred here under Amin.

Tobi Bamtefa in rehearsals for The Last King of Scotland at Sheffield Theatres (photo by Helen Murray)

And when I mentioned to Ugandans that I was working on a play about Amin, there was a distinct sense that I was raking over ancient history. After all, for the youthful population, Amin’s rule preceded their birth by decades. They’re more interested in the current President’s critic, the singer and philanthropist Bobi Wine; or in protesting at a Government tax on social media. The swanky new malls that rise from streets choked with traffic, the impoverished fishermen emptying Lake Victoria of its fish with mosquito nets, the commuters with their legs wrapped round the rider of a boda boda bike – they all have their faces set on a difficult future as citizens of one of the poorest nations in Africa. No wonder the then-imminent visit of Narendra Modi or the unfinished pothole-free highway from Entebbe Airport held more interest to them than the mayhem of Amin’s rule.

Yet for all that, I came home feeling closer to Amin’s tenure. One astonishing outcome of the visit was a read-through of the play on Bulago Island in the great space of Lake Victoria. A company was hastily assembled, with one paper copy of the script, two laptops running out of battery, and various shared phones. The part of Idi was read by the Island’s policeman (like Amin, a member of the Kakwa people); the Ambassador was read by a retired British judge, sidelined by the current Government for exposing its corruption; Idi’s wife Kay was played by a cook who, it quickly became apparent, was barely literate. The waters of the lake lapped against the shore, kingfishers flashed past and golden-orbed spiders hung from the trees. The day passed, we broke for lunch, we continued.

Afterwards, we talked. The policeman, his voice soft and kind, felt Idi Amin was a ‘great man’, misunderstood, badly advised. A lawyer spoke of his fear of Amin as a child, his family’s sufferings. The white ex-pats seemed a little uncomfortable with this discussion, and I felt their loneliness too – it is reflected in the fate of Marina, one of the characters in the play. Then, without warning, the sun fell below the horizon and the equatorial night began.

Where is all that in the play? A line here, a line there. But for me, my brief time in that wonderful country transformed a technical task into a labour of love, closing down the distance between play, novel and the reality behind them both, as vast and intangible as the waters of that great African lake.


The above is an edited version of an article by Steve Waters, first published in the theatre programme for the Sheffield Theatres’ production of The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden, adapted by Steve Waters. The play has its world premiere at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 27 September–19 October 2019. To book tickets, visit the Sheffield Theatres website.

The script of The Last King of Scotland is published by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £7.99 (rrp £9.99) visit the Nick Hern Books website.

In Memoriam Peter Nichols

Playwright Peter Nichols, whose plays include A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, The National Health and Privates on Parade, died on 7 September at the age of 92. Here, in an extract from his published Diaries, he describes meeting Laurence Olivier in January 1969 to discuss the National Theatre’s forthcoming production of his play The National Health – a meeting that didn’t quite go according to plan…

Michael Blakemore [director of the National Theatre production ofThe National Health], having been asked to meet Olivier [Laurence Olivier, then Director of the National Theatre] fifteen minutes before I was due, arranged to see me fifteen minutes before that. All his life is like this – a farce of concealments and intricate deceptions. Having left him at Waterloo Bridge, I walked about for fifteen minutes before turning up at Aquinas Street where the offices of the National Theatre are crammed into government-issue prefabs among terraces of two storey artisan housing. Olivier had outflanked Mike’s intrigue by not arriving at all, leaving Ken [Kenneth Tynan, Literary Manager of the National Theatre] to keep us happy. Ken gave me whisky and apologised for Larry, said to be at a wig-fitting. We all talked of the new theatre to be built to Denys Lasdun’s design near the Festival Hall. Is it likely or just another mirage? The Queen Mother had already unveiled several foundation-stones in various places. Ken was hopeful.

After half an hour and a good deal of Scotch, Ken lost patience and said it must be quite some wig. At which moment, a Rolls was manoeuvred through the narrow opening and parked in the yard.

There was a flutter of myrmidons and a little man bustled in, holding out his hand.

‘I’ve never been more sorry in my life.’

For some minutes he alternated apology with disposing of the business accrued in his absence, mostly arrangements to bring a film producer from LA, requiring subtraction sums for the lost hours.

‘I apologise abjectly for being late then attend to anything but your play!’ he exclaimed, took off the pinstripe suit-jacket, sat at the table and drank some of the Scotch we’d left.

We went through the cast of twenty-two characters, matching them to the available actors. His opinions of his company were unimpressed, even brutal.

‘No, he can’t play Foster because he’s not staying.’ This was evidently news to Tynan. ‘No. Boring man. Drinks too much and is always slapping me on the back and asking me to supper with his family. No.’

Poster for the 1973 film of The National Health, directed by Jack Gold

The advantage a famous actor has is the history he carries with him. I, now fairly far gone on subsidised whisky, saw not only a sixty-year-old man with toothbrush moustache, bank-manager glasses, suit and club tie, but Maxim de Winter confessing he hadn’t loved Rebecca, Heathcliff on the moor, Darcy, Henry V, Richard III, Hamlet, Archie Rice, Astrov, Titus Andronicus, Coriolanus, Antony, The Duke of Altair, the waiter in Carrie, etc., so I’d been watching him much of my life in the flesh or on film.

‘Well, I don’t know what else we have to discuss.’ As he poured another glass, this seemed to be our exit-cue, but Tynan asked where I stood on euthanasia and this began a further hour’s discussion. I put my own confused and watery arguments for allowing the helplessly defective to die, based on our own firstborn [Nichols’ daughter Abigail, whose severe disabilities were reflected in the character of Josephine in his 1967 play A Day in the Death of Joe Egg]. Tynan argued the liberal case against this and Olivier got the best of both worlds by saying we shouldn’t be so squeamish about life itself and in a few years we’d all be standing on each other’s heads and then it would be too late for such sentiments, people who were no use should be helped out, then at once told us that when the doctors warned him his daughter may not survive, she had only a five-per-cent chance, he’d said, ‘Save her! Save her!’ I hope he didn’t do this with quite the panache he used in telling us or the doctors’ hands must have shaken with fear. ‘You see? I wanted to save my child, though I knew she might not be whole.’ His eyes were burning bright as he roared: ‘I was a female tiger.’

As we walked away later, Michael pointed out that Tynan, for all his egalitarian posturing, has lived a life devoted to excelling and becoming élite, whereas Olivier exemplifies in his vigorous person and his willingness to face the crowd again and again, a reason for living.

Peter Nichols in Bristol 1968 with his daughter Louise and (background) daughter Abigail, wife Thelma and son Dan


The above is an edited extract from Peter Nichols’ Diaries 1969–1977, published by Nick Hern Books.

Also published by Nick Hern Books are Nichols’ plays Passion Play and So Long Life.

Edinburgh Fringe Report 2019: Amateur companies lighting up the Fringe

As attention shifts from the drama at Westminster to the drama in Edinburgh, we hear from three intrepid amateur companies performing plays licensed by Nick Hern Books at this year’s Festival Fringe. From macho corporate politics to brilliant youth theatre via the Ballet Russes, they demonstrate the resourcefulness and the eclecticism of the Fringe at its very best…

Bull by Mike Bartlett
Arbery Productions
theSpace @ Niddry St, 12-24 August

In the struggle for survival, no blow is too low.

One of three office workers is about to lose their job. As Tony, Isobel and Thomas wait for their boss to deliver the verdict, the three discuss each other’s chances of survival.

One of our actors suggested Mike Bartlett’s play Bull to Arbery Productions. He had performed scenes from it while he was training, and he loved the play. I read it and thought it could be really powerful. I just felt gripped by it. I said yes after only two days.

We rehearsed in quite a lot of depth and detail. We began by brainstorming our reactions to the script. We tried to figure out what we felt were the main themes, and what Bartlett was trying to present. To a degree, Bull speaks for itself. You have the analogy of the bullfight and that image is very rich. It gives you a lot of scope to apply choreography and style to the piece, but it’s also suitably minimalistic. We kept it very simple. I decided to strip everything back and keep the focus on the actors.

We had a great success with the production at the 2019 Scottish Community Drama Association One-Act Festival, where we were selected as a finalist.

Bull by Mike Bartlett, performed by Arbery Productions at the Scottish Community Drama Association One-Act Festival 2019

We’re going even more minimalistic for the Fringe. There are nine other shows in the same space as us, so we have a very tight turnaround and a tiny cupboard for storage. We’ll be using one white chair and marking out a big circle with hundreds of white plastic cups (the ones you get from an office water cooler) to represent our bull ring/office space. It’s very stark and very abstract.

We’re excited to get started. We’ve got cast members from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Cyprus! This is my first production with Arbery and we can’t wait to take it to the Fringe after its success earlier this year.

– Adam Tomkins, Director


Rattigan’s Nijinksy by Nicholas Wright
KGS Theatre Company
theSpace @ Surgeons Hall, 18-24 August

In a hotel room, lauded playwright Terence Rattigan meets Vaslav Nijinsky’s elderly widow, Romola, to fight over his latest play. Meanwhile in the same room, the impresario Sergei Diaghilev and the young Romola fight over the tormented Nijinsky.

In 1974, Terence Rattigan wrote a television script for the BBC about the relationship between Diaghilev, the impresario behind the Ballets Russes, and Nijinsky, the most renowned dancer of all time, which Rattigan described as ‘the greatest love story since Romeo and Juliet‘. But the playwright withdrew the play and it was never produced…

We are a theatre company of young adults from Kingston Grammar School who have had fantastic success on the Fringe – including a sell-out production  of Joseph K by Tom Basden in 2017. Taking a show to Edinburgh really is an experience none of us forget. Past company members have returned to the Fringe producing, writing and performing in their own work – such is the strength of their experiences.

KGS Theatre Company flyering at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe

Preparations for this year’s production of Nicholas Wright’s play Rattigan’s Nijinsky are well underway and we have one of our most talented casts. We are hoping to bring both the world of Rattigan and the world of the Ballet Russes to life on the stage simultaneously. We are also learning a great deal about historical perceptions of sexuality as we analyse the stigmas around homosexuality and the circumstances that prevented people living their lives as freely as we do today.

Rattigan’s Nijinsky by Nicholas Wright, performed by KGS Theatre Company

We are greatly looking forward to performing at the Fringe and hope to impress audiences as we have in the past.

– Stu Crohill, Director


Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy
PQA Edinburgh
PQA Venues @ Riddle’s Court, 2-6 August

You’re born a girl. You grow up. You grow old. You die. But who is in control of your life story? Can you actually choose your destiny? And how do you forge your own identity along the way?

We are PQA Edinburgh, a weekend children’s performing arts academy based in Scotland’s beautiful and historic capital. This is our second year performing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe as we had the most spectacular time last year!

PQA Edinburgh rehearsing Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy

The play we have chosen to perform at this year’s Fringe is Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy. We chose this play not only for its fantastic story and wonderful text, but also for the vast array of characters. In the past we have struggled to find great writing for a large predominantly female cast, but with Second Person Narrative we have hit the jackpot!

We’ve been working on the play for several months – as we have only one session a week, we need to spread our rehearsal process out. The rehearsal process has been really enjoyable as the play allows the students to create well-rounded and believable characters and has also given every student the challenge of creating more than one character across the piece. We also decided that this was a wonderful opportunity for our students to use this play for their Trinity College Grade 4 Plays in Production Group exam. I was so proud of the professionalism shown by every student and I was over the moon to announce to the group that they had passed with Merit!

Why not come along and see us in this brilliant production – we’d love to see you!

– Leonna McGilligan-Dix, Principal of PQA Edinburgh


Good luck and break a leg to all the brilliant amateur companies taking NHB-licensed shows to the Edinburgh Fringe this year!

Are you looking for a show to take to the Fringe next year? Take a look at our dedicated Plays to Perform site, where you can search for plays by genre, theme and/or cast size, and sign up for our Plays to Perform newsletter.

Or get in touch with our Performing Rights team – we’re always happy to help you find the perfect play to perform. Call us on 020 8749 4953, or email rights@nickhernbooks.co.uk.

Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter, @NHBPerforming.

Our previous Edinburgh Fringe Reports are still available here:

Edinburgh Fringe Report 2018
Edinburgh Fringe Report 2017
Edinburgh Fringe Report 2016 Part 1: Final Preparations
Edinburgh Fringe Report 2016 Part 2: The Reckoning
Edinburgh Fringe Report 2015 Part 1: Cutting it at the Fringe
Edinburgh Fringe Report 2015 Part 2: The Final Reckoning

The ordinary made extraordinary: Robert Holman on writing plays

Robert Holman is the playwright most admired by other playwrights. Championed by writers such as Simon Stephens and David Eldridge, his plays – including Making Noise Quietly, Jonah and Otto and A Breakfast of Eels – combine close observation of the way people behave with a thrilling and often fiercely uncompromising mastery of dramatic form. His work is now set to find new audiences, with the film adaptation of Making Noise Quietly showing on cinema screens from this week. Here, alongside the publication of a collection of his early plays, Robert Holman Plays: One, he reflects on his own approach to playwriting, and how each of his plays has been shaped by his own personal circumstances.

Mud is the first play I wrote that had an interval. I was twenty-one. I left Yorkshire when I was nineteen and stayed with a school friend in Camden Town. I slept on an air bed. One night a bullet came through the window, made a little hole in the glass, and passed over my head. A prostitute lived below, but I never found out what the bullet was about. In the kitchen in Camden Town, in a notepad and then on the portable typewriter my parents bought me, I wrote a play which a few months later went on in a lunchtime theatre in Edinburgh. It lasted nearly an hour and was my first professional production. The play was a sort of fantasy about an old man visiting a graveyard at night, and the critic of the Scotsman newspaper said it was clearly written by a bitter old man. I was still only nineteen. I have wondered if I might one day write about the bullet in Camden Town, but a play has not come along.

Mud was written in Belsize Park. I had got there by way of Westbourne Park, where I had found a room overlooking the railway to Paddington. There were more very small spiders living around the window than I had seen before or since, as well as untroubled mice running across the floor. There was an old, broken wardrobe. The window was opaque with dirt. I put down my case, sat on the bed and looked about, got depressed, and stayed two hours. Back in Camden Town in desperation I rang my mother, wondering if I should go home to Yorkshire, but she had heard, from a distant relative, about a family in Belsize Park who sometimes had a room they let out. I went to Belsize Park for a week and stayed seven years. All the early plays were written there, in a bright room at the top of the house overlooking the garden, with Hampstead Heath nearby to walk across and the space to think. Sometimes in life we are most grateful for ordinary things, if giving someone a room to live in is ordinary. The room set the course for the rest of my life. The rent was a few pounds a week, and very often I did not pay it. I have struggled with money ever since, and it started then.

Mud was written in the evenings and in the early hours of the mornings, because I worked during the day on Paddington Station, selling newspapers and magazines. I was not a clever boy, but sometimes I had a good instinct about the best thing to do, and I was learning to trust myself. Intuition had told me to get an easy job, one where I did not have to think too deeply. If that sounds rude about the bookstall or the other people working there, I do not mean it to be. It’s the only ‘proper’ job I have ever had, and to begin with I did not tell them I was also trying to write. The first draft of Mud was written in longhand using the fountain pen I had sat my school exams with. I made it up as I went along, with no idea of where it might end up. I put down the things I saw in my imagination and wrote what I heard people say. The dialogue was character-driven and the people in the play led me. If there were days when they said nothing it was a nuisance, and I would do my best to look at the empty page for half an hour before putting away the pen. If too many days like this came one after the other, it would be frustrating and then I would get depressed. I longed for the skills of a proper writer. My writing was in charge of me, rather than me being in charge of it.

Mud was written when writing was a hobby of mine. There were two drafts of the play written in ink, the second one bearing very little resemblance to the first, because all I was trying to do was to get a sense of who the characters were, and this was changing as I wrote them. Men were becoming women, women men, someone of nineteen was becoming sixty and vice versa. At some point a consistency emerged, as much decided by them as decided by me. It was as if I knew these people as well as I knew anybody who was actually alive. By now I was typing the play. It was still changing as I went on, still surprising me. I would sometimes look at my watch and it would be past three o’clock in the morning. One day Mrs Bradshaw, who owned the house, came up the stairs with a felt pad to put underneath the typewriter because their bedroom was below, and the clatter of the typewriter keys was keeping them awake.

Other Worlds by Robert Holman, Royal Court Theatre, 1983, included in Robert Holman Plays: One

On Paddington Station we used to give rude customers as many small coins in their change as we possibly could. We wore badges with our names on. One day a stranger asked to speak to me. I expected to be told off or even sacked, but it was a theatre director, who asked if I might be free to write a play for him. He had wanted Howard Brenton, but Howard Brenton was busy and had told him about me. Still standing on the platform of the station, the director explained he had a slot. The play would need to be written in six weeks. Mud had taken me over a year to write and I was usually very slow. But who would say no to this? So, I said yes. I would be given money for writing, which I was not used to. When could I start? I said I could start straight away.

The Natural Cause was the play that began to turn my hobby into a job. I set the play in London not in Yorkshire, though when the characters said something I still heard my own accent. As with Mud I made it up as I went on. Some evenings I would write three or four pages and other evenings three or four lines, and then cross out most of it. I had to be taken in by what I was writing and get lost in it. Sometimes it would be like bashing my head against a brick wall. At the end of two weeks it dawned on me that there would not be a play if I was still selling newspapers because I needed every minute of the day to try to write. I spoke to the manager of the bookstall and told him what I was doing. He said to come back when I was finished, and if he had not managed to replace me, there would still be a job.

The Natural Cause was a worrying play to write. If writing is a hobby it matters little if there are days when you cannot do it very well. I had four weeks left to finish a play, and a day with nothing done is a day empty forever. I spent all one Monday walking up and down across the Heath, all the time wondering how I was going to lie my way out of writing the play. If I told the director I was ill that was better than saying I could not do it. Or I could just disappear. The rain started. It came down in heavy sheets and was soon penetrating the leaves and branches of trees, so standing under them was pointless. On Parliament Hill it looked as if London was drowning. As it got towards evening and lights came on, the city was resplendent. For less than a minute, in the hardest of the rain, London went turquoise, a colour I had not seen it go before or seen since. I stood on one of the wooden benches to get a clearer view, and decided it was better to write rubbish than to write nothing at all, and to work out the lies I would tell another time.

I am mostly a private writer, which means my plays mean different things to different people, even though the theatre is a public place. My plays are not driven by a single ideology or an idea, there is no right or wrong in them, or one easy explanation. They are about what you want them to be about, and this changes.

Royal Shakespeare Company poster for 1985 Barbican season, including Robert Holman’s Today

All plays are pieces of energy, and how they come about, the places they are written and in what circumstances, always says something about them. Today was written quickly. I did not have much time to think, and sometimes this is the best way to write, because thinking is inhibiting, if you are me. I still want to write a play where I do not think at all. Today was written in the moment, line by line, wherever the dialogue led me, rather than me leading it. It is a history play, but not one with an overarching idea or ideology. It is a play driven by the needs of its characters. I am simply not clever enough to write about history in an original way. If I might generalise for a moment, there is always at least one person somewhere in the world who is cleverer than we are. These are the people who come up with new thoughts about history – or anything else for that matter. On the other hand, our emotions, our feelings, are always slightly different and special to each of us. You might fall in love in a different way to me or be scared by very different things. Sometimes living is easy, but often it is painful. There are times when we feel alone even with friends about us. I was learning to try to write about all this and to know it is the stuff of life. If I have anything special as a writer, and you will decide if I have or not, it is writing characters who stay in the mind for an hour or two when the play is over; and they stay in the mind because the people in the plays are like you with your fears. They are my fears, too.

All my plays are a mixture of memory and imagination, and they have mostly used landscapes that I know well. I was born and brought up on a farm on the moors in north Yorkshire. Middlesbrough and the Tees Estuary, with the chemical and steel industry close by, were twenty miles away.

The Overgrown Path by Robert Holman, Royal Court Theatre, 1985, included in Robert Holman Plays: One

The way my plays are written in the moment means that they will not be perfect. They can be strong because of the moment but also weak because of it. If I write a scene one morning it might be slightly different if I write it the next morning. It is down to luck, but I have learned more about the world from writing plays in this way than I have from anything else in life. I have surprised myself, and now and again I hope I have surprised an audience. If an audience does not know what is coming next, it is because I also did not know what was coming next. My writing involves a lot of trust. I have to trust myself that something interesting will come out of me next morning  and know that I can put it down using words. Words are everything. To trust oneself to find the right word is sometimes a challenge. The thing that matters most to me is the English language and how it can be used to tell a story.

A writer has no responsibilities whatsoever, other than to themselves, their integrity and intelligence. My plays are not about the world as it is, but about the world as I would like it to be and wish it was. In this way my plays are romances.


The above is an edited extract from the introduction to Robert Holman Plays: One, out now, published by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £15.19 (20% off the RRP), click here.

Robert Holman Plays: One includes the plays The Natural Cause, Mud, Other Worlds, Today and The Overgrown Path. Other plays by Robert Holman published by Nick Hern Books are available here.

Author photo by Dan Wooller, 2018.

 

Feeling confused about sex: The Wardrobe Ensemble on their play 1972: The Future of Sex

Bristol-based theatre collective The Wardrobe Ensemble have been winning plaudits and delighting audiences across the UK with their brand of theatrical ingenuity and irreverent humour. As their acclaimed show 1972: The Future of Sex is published alongside its revival at the Bristol Old Vic this month, ensemble member Tom Brennan explains how the show was conceived and developed, while below, Musical Director and Composer Tom Crosley-Thorne reveals how he raided his parents’ vinyl collection for inspiration…

‘Mum, when did you first have sex?’

We began making this show under the working title The History of Fucking in the autumn of 2014 at Shoreditch Town Hall. We were feeling pretty uncomfortable about the state of sexual politics at the time and wanted to know how we had got to where we were. In those first two weeks, we generated mountains of material. We researched, read, interviewed our parents (see above question), improvised, danced, played and talked. We talked about history, change, gender, identity, choice, equality, power, porn, love, sex, sex, sex. We talked about the inequalities present in our rehearsal room. We felt vulnerable and dangerous. We felt confused.

When we first performed the show  over the summer of 2015, I was surprised by a particular response. Often audience members who grew up in the 1970s talked to us after the show about how recognisable and real the world of the play felt to them. They would ask us how we knew what such and such an experience was like, or how we’d managed to make it feel so real.

1972: The Future of Sex by The Wardbrobe Ensemble, research and development at Shoreditch Town Hall, October 2014

Yes, we did a lot of research into the specific cultural landscape of early 1970s Britain, to make it feel grounded. We made long lists of seventies’ artefacts and cultural relics. We were aware that the era is often depicted in either depressive social-realist hues – a sad vista of strikes, poverty and civil unrest ­– or as a psychedelic orgy of philosophising hippies and social rebellion. But our conversations with our parents led us to find another reality: a generation of young people who (much like any other generation) felt like the party was happening in another room. Their imaginations were perhaps sparked by reading The Female Eunuch or seeing Bowie as Ziggy Stardust on Top of the Pops, but the vast majority of young people weren’t about to join the revolution, however much they wanted to. Instead they were trapped between the future and the past. They were caught between a desire to become that gorgeous butterfly, and the harsh reality of still living as a very awkward, very confused caterpillar.

Feeling painfully awkward and self-conscious about sex as a young person is a pretty universal human experience. And I imagine that’s why audience members felt connected to the show, whether they’d grown up in the 1970s or not. We were tapping into something everyone experiences.

1972: The Future of Sex at The Wardrobe Theatre, Bristol, March 2016 (photo by Jack Offord)

We also made an important decision to build the world of the play around spoken narration. Words are a fantastically useful tool, because they suggest rather than prescribe. Spoken narration is open to interpretation; it allows each and every member of the audience to fill in the blanks with details from their own life. So, for instance, when one character in the play watches a porno, it becomes you watching porn for the first time; when two characters kiss for the first time, it becomes your first snog on a scuzzy dance floor somewhere. In the most powerful moments, the set, the performers and the story all combine to become a conduit for your own personal reflection. As Virginia Woolf said, ‘Words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind… full of echoes, memories, associations, naturally. They’ve been out and about on people’s lips – in the houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries… stored with other meanings, with other memories’.

For anyone interested in putting this play on in the future, I’d encourage you not to overcomplicate any aspect of your production, nor to prescribe too heavily its emotional or intellectual meaning. I’d encourage you to allow space for the audience. Try not to judge anyone, even the least appealing characters. I’m proud of how open this show is. Most importantly, it’s accessible to people from many different generations. And it’s from this place of openness that we can acknowledge our collective confusion – and begin to talk. It seems to me that confusion is the inevitable and appropriate state to be in when talking about sex. Nothing else is true, or honest. So let’s be willing to be confused – let’s be as open, honest and welcoming about our confusion as possible.

Peace and love, dudes.

1972: The Future of Sex at The Wardrobe Theatre, Bristol, March 2016 (photo by Jack Offord)

Musical Director and Composer Tom Crosley-Thorne on the musical influences behind the play:

Music is integral to this play. Before 1972: The Future of Sex, The Wardrobe Ensemble had always made their own music. But for the sound of the 1970s to be ingrained in the play, the group felt they needed to bring in someone external. As a gigging musician I came from a performing, songwriting and music-production background, composing in various styles for live bands, recording artists and short films. But this was my first production.

I was brought in for the first stage of the research and development process at Shoreditch Town Hall. During this time I was introduced to the devising process. It was a fast-paced room where anyone could write, perform or collaborate on anything. Things would get thrown at me, from Al Green to Ziggy Stardust. There was no time to be precious and at the end of each twenty-minute session you had to share. It was a fortnight of wah-wah guitar, space hoppers and glitter.

The process also brought up some challenges: What makes a song sexy? What is the sound of the seventies? How do I steer clear of pastiches or clichés? And how do I perform this music on my own? So I began by asking my parents what music they’d listened to in the seventies and what it meant to them. Out came their old vinyl collections: James Brown, David Bowie, Earth, Wind & Fire, Mott The Hoople, Commodores, The Temptations, Parliament, to name a few… The music evoked a feeling of revolution. It is proud, fun and exciting. It is guitar, bass and drums. It is speaking for what you believe in and saying it simply.

It soon became clear to me just how much this iconic era changed the sound of music today. I was enticed by the simple instrumentation of the early funk records, so I decided that I would set myself the limitation of using only electric guitar, bass, keyboard and drums. It was very important to the group to have a musician onstage as it gave the show a particular live energy in having all of us make everything between us. So I performed lead guitar on top of backing tracks that were sequenced onto a loop pedal. The only music that I didn’t compose is that of the late great David Bowie, as I wasn’t going to do it justice. So there I was, with an electric guitar in one hand and a pedal board in the other, wearing bell-bottom jeans, about to perform 1972: The Future of Sex for the first time. I can still hear my excitement when I listen to the music now.

You can listen to a sample of the music for the show at: www.soundcloud.com/1972thefutureofsex


This is an edited extract from material accompanying the playscript in 1972: The Future of Sex, published by Nick Hern Books on 2 May 2019.

To buy your copy for just £7.99 (20% off the RRP of £9.99), visit the Nick Hern Books website. The Wardrobe Ensemble’s 2017 show Education, Education, Education , revived at the West End’s Trafalgar Studios from 31 May 2019, is also available.

1972: The Future of Sex is at the Bristol Old Vic until 11 May 2019.