Edinburgh Festival Fringe special: with Hywel John

Hywel John

Hywel John, author of Rose

To celebrate NHB’s involvement in this year’s vibrant Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme, we’ve asked a handful of our writers who have either performed, written, directed or produced work for the Festival Fringe to tell us what it means to them. First up is Hywel John, whose latest work Rose, a heartfelt study of heritage, grief and family, opens at the Pleasance Courtyard on 3rd August.

It’s been six years since I was last in Edinburgh for the Fringe. The Festival in 2005 has turned into a bit of a personal and professional benchmark: I’d recently left drama school and the theatre company I co-ran, MahWaff, took two shows up, Guardians by Peter Morris (which won a Fringe First) and Angry Young Man by Ben Woolf, both of which played to packed houses at the Pleasance. Before that heady summer, I’d performed or visited the Fringe every year since 2001, and my memories are the usual intoxicating Edinburgh brew of rain, battered haggis, all-night drinking, performing through sweaty hangovers, and wild uncontrollable euphoria at getting a three-star review or for having more than twenty people in the audience.

My first year in 2001 was a peculiar introduction to the Fringe. I was acting in a Bristol University production of Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters at C Venues. We had stoically prepared for our month-long run by regularly reminding ourselves that the average Fringe audience was about ten people, so if we did better than that we’d be doing okay. Our vigorously ambitious director had chosen a 250-seater theatre, so our stoicism seemed particularly necessary. Come first preview though, we were collectively a little unsettled when we were faced with a healthy crowd of twenty-five. None of whom we knew personally. Perhaps our four hours of flyering in the rain dressed in our homemade Discworld costumes had done the trick? The warm lager of the C Venues bar tasted sweet that evening. But then come show number two, we had a house of around forty. Show three, seventy people. By the end of the week, we were pretty much sold out to cheering crowds. Without a single review. It was extremely odd, but as we were all mostly drunk ninety per cent of the time, we didn’t give much time to consider why this might be. Our collective greatness, no doubt. Next stop the West End, obviously. It was only after someone mentioned that this was the first time that a Pratchett play had graced an Edinburgh stage and that Terry Pratchett was at the time the UK’s bestselling author, that the winning formula really became clear to us. I think the director had selected Wyrd Sisters because she thought it would be a bit of a laugh. And she was right, it was. But as for three weeks of sell-out crowds, it was an accident, and a glorious one. We all ended the run a few hundred quid better off. We felt like we had conquered the world.

Each year thereafter was wildly different from the last, but in some respects I look back at those initial years as unsteady, mostly drunken, but consistently determined steps towards working professionally. The Fringe is like an unholy theatrical Petri dish where anything can flourish, but for me by the end of August 2005 I felt like a proper actor for the first time, whatever that means.

Rose play script

Rose by Hywel John (£9.99)

The irony is that despite attempts to get myself cast in an Edinburgh-bound show several times since, I haven’t been back for six years, and now I’m returning as a playwright. I don’t really know what to expect, but I predict some fairly heavy doses of nostalgia. Certain aspects feels oddly aligned: the producers of my new play, Rose, Alex Waldmann and Jess Malik, are both friends and colleagues from 2005; and again we’ll be at the Pleasance, this time in the new Pleasance Forth venue. A homecoming of sorts then.

It’s impossible to predict how a play will go down at the Fringe, but we’re all hopeful we’ve got something good on our hands. I’m certainly lucky enough to have two amazing actors in Art Malik and Keira Malik, and an excellent production team led by the wonderful director Abbey Wright. Unbelievably, none of them have worked or performed in Edinburgh before, so I’ve been busy prepping them for the bear pit of the Festival, to lessen the shock. Taking a show to Edinburgh always feels like a big deal, a bigger deal I think than a more traditional run of a show in a ‘proper’ theatre, and I know we all feel like that in our team.

But I think if you treat the Fringe like you have nothing to lose, it will repay you handsomely. Although it’s true that the payback could possibly be penury, a two-week hangover, and in the case of 2003 for me, a hefty bout of non-specific urethritis.

Good times.

Hywel John’s latest play, Rose, will premiere at the Pleasance Courtyard, 3–29 August, part of this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, click here to book tickets or call 0131 556 6550. NHB proudly publish the playscript alongside this production, as well as the author’s debut play Pieces. To order your copy with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed).

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