‘The show we needed to make’ – The Wardrobe Ensemble on The Last of the Pelican Daughters

Formed in a rehearsal room at the Bristol Old Vic in 2011, The Wardrobe Ensemble are, in their own words, ‘a group of theatre artists working together to make new plays that dissect the twenty-first century experience’. In the near-decade since their founding, they’ve earned success and critical acclaim – performing around the UK, winning awards and staging one of their plays in London’s West End. 

Their latest show, The Last of the Pelican Daughters, premiered at Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2019, and was due to embark on a UK-wide tour before it was sadly shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, in an extract from the introduction to the published playscript shared to mark the play’s publication, the play’s co-directors Tom Brennan and Jesse Jones reflect on its development, what that showed them about the evolution of the company, and how the current crisis in UK theatre has made them reflect on their own choices.

When we met with Judith Dimant of Complicité (and now Wayward Productions) in 2016, she said that we reminded her of a young Complicité (which is always exactly what an emerging theatre company wants to hear). As much as this was to do with theatrical style, it was perhaps more to do with the non-hierarchical form of our company, and the intensity of the relationships between company members. We’re a tight-knit group with our own traditions, secrets and mythologies, crafted over the decade we’ve spent working together. In that meeting, she asked us if there was a show that we wanted to make, but were too terrified and felt too inexperienced to do so.

We’d been speaking about making The Wardrobe Ensemble’s version of a ‘family drama’ for some years. As much as we loved watching stories about families, from Greek tragedy to The Simpsons, it felt like so much of what we associated with ‘family drama’ was formally stuck within a kind of naturalism that didn’t reflect our tastes or theatrical sensibilities. On top of this, the most famous works of family drama explored the particular quirks and traumas of a singular playwright. Tennessee Williams’ ‘memory’ play The Glass Menagerie, for example, reads like a therapy session for the writer. Would it be possible for a group rather than a single writer, or more importantly our group, with our particular quirks and differences of experience to embark on such a therapy/creation experience? How would we excavate and interrogate our collective familial demons? Is there anything to be revealed about our time and generation? Importantly in those early conversations, we were sure that our show would look nothing like a family drama that you’ve seen before. It would mess with the conventions of the genre and reflect our own world-view and style. Judith liked this idea the best.

Somewhat ironically, but perhaps tellingly, what emerged is the most naturalistic play that we’ve ever made, one that adheres to many narrative and stylistic conventions of ‘traditional’ or ‘straight’ plays of the past. It’s got plenty more silence, subtext and emotional performance than any of our other work. Similarly, the themes and characters look and sound like plays of the past: it begins with a death, it’s about a house, someone is having a baby. There’s more than a hint of The Cherry Orchard’s Varya in Storm, or the ghost of King Hamlet in Rosemary Pelican. And it’s important to say that all of this convention felt terrifying for us. Making a ‘proper’ play felt extremely difficult. Naturalism felt unnatural.

So much of devising lies in an ability to give up certain aspects of control and let a show emerge. The work that comes out of us collectively is not driven by a singular voice, but emerges through the collective character of the company. And so, it’s weird that we made this. This isn’t the show that any one of us wanted to make. But despite our best efforts, it’s the show that the company needed to make.

‘Our work emerges through the collective character of the company’ – The Wardrobe Ensemble’s award-winning show Education Education Education (photo by Graeme Braidwood)

We understood that to deconstruct a family drama we needed to make one. But by the time we built one that functioned – designed the family, found their stories and struggles, built the pink house, etc. – deconstructing them all felt like a disingenuous act. Though we often felt embarrassed by their behaviour and the interpersonal issues that were emerging in the play, we did care about the Pelicans. We had to, because to varying degrees, their stories are our stories. And that isn’t to say that we have undying love and affection for these characters. Ask any member of the company about how much irony is in the play, and it will differ. Some will say ‘This is my family’, some will say ‘I fucking hate these privileged arseholes’, and some will acknowledge what is maybe closest to the truth: ‘This is a version of The Wardrobe Ensemble.’

We tried to make the show flashier, cooler and more energetic. We tried to make the characters address their political context more directly, as we might have done in previous work. But these attempts felt dishonest. Perhaps because we were all in a process of grappling with an ugly truth, that we were starting to care about so-called ‘grown-up things’. Our work used to explore the world in hypothetical or nostalgic terms, but what do we actually worry about now? What keeps us up at night are often the same questions that are affecting the Pelican children: What do I want my life to look like? What do I need to get there? How long can I exist in this chaotic ensemble? Do I always have to share? What kind of an adult do I want to be?

In March this year (2020), we remounted this show in Northampton ready for our UK tour. After a few rewrites and additions, and a partial re-cast (the wonderful Sally Cheng, Laurie Jamieson and Bea Scirocchi joined the team), the show was ready to hit the road. We were struck by how much more comfortable we had become with The Last of the Pelican Daughters. We were able to lean into the naturalism, pace and emotion of it with far more confidence. It seemed we had finally accepted the strange thing we had collectively given birth to. Had we become what we sought to reject? Had we actually become adults? And then, of course, COVID-19. We were at the Nuffield in Southampton (NST) when it was announced the government strongly advised the public not to go to theatres any more. The tour was cancelled and all the professional stability that we had tried so hard to build over the past ten years had disappeared overnight. We dismantled the set and packed it away. NST has since gone into administration. And so, as we write this (in early July), we find ourselves reflecting on the show in vastly different ways.

Preparations for The Last of the Pelican Daughters at Nuffield Southampton Theatres, before the production was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic (photo by Tom Crosley-Thorne)

If this play is our first reckoning with the proper realities of being grown-ups, there are two diametrically opposing messages that the show seems to reflect back at us.

Firstly, that our mission of collective theatre-making and non-hierarchical structures was naive and hypocritical. Instead, we should have cared about real ‘adult things’. The Pelican children lose their house and their inheritance at the end of the play, because at some level, they just weren’t paying attention. From one perspective, we as a company have buried our heads in the sand for the last ten years. We’ve been making financially unsustainable choices since day one. So perhaps it’s time to kill the dream and start making responsible choices. Maybe the Tories are right. Maybe we should wake up to the reality that we live in a capitalist society before we lose everything we hold dear.

But secondly, that dramatic changes to our reality can come out of nowhere, whether you’ve behaved like an ‘adult’ or not. Susie Stephens of Stephen Stephens and Sons Solicitors will always interrupt breakfast. And so, now more than ever, it feels vital that we hold onto the families that we find ourselves in. The idealism of Rosemary Pelican and indeed The Wardrobe Ensemble is unrealistic, but at the moment we’re not sure what isn’t. As the coronavirus leaves our world’s safety, economy and future on shaky ground, we need communities, rituals, traditions, secrets and mythologies to hold onto more than ever. And if we really are the grown-ups now, it’s our responsibility to define the culture of the families in which we exist. It’s up to us to choose what to bring forward into the future and what to abandon. It’s our responsibility to start building a house in which we actually want to live.


The members of The Wardrobe Ensemble meeting on Zoom during lockdown (photo by Tom Brennan)

We’re very proud to publish The Last of the Pelican Daughters, which is out now in paperback and ebook. In addition to the full script of the play, the published edition includes an extensive oral history of The Wardrobe Ensemble by its members, and a workshop plan for two people of different generations to communicate and collaborate in person or online.

As one the dozens of NHB-published shows affected by the COVID-19 shutdown, we’re currently offering 30% off The Last of the Pelican Daughters in our Still on the Page celebration – see more here.

Check out more of The Wardrobe Ensemble’s NHB-published work here.

‘Dear Class of 2020…’: A message to new drama graduates – Part Two

Graduating from a course or degree is always a momentous moment of change – but with the world in grips of a pandemic and the theatre industry almost entirely shut down, the Class of 2020 face additional challenges.

Here, in Part Two of a special two-part blog post, we asked some celebrated theatre-makers (and NHB authors) to offer some words of encouragement to all those now setting out from drama school or university. Read their thoughts below, and read Part One here.


Anna Jordan: ‘you have already achieved great things’ 

You are already amazing. You have already achieved great things. Getting to the end of an acting/theatre course at a drama school is no mean feat. It’s a test of your mental and physical ability, your spirit, your tenacity, your bravery and openness. I did it nearly fifteen years ago, so I remember (just!).

To do it in the face of COVID and all the challenges that it has brought is nothing short of exceptional.

A career in the arts is not easy. It was never easy and it’s going to be even harder now. You will have to do other things to supplement this. There is no shame in that. Find an additional career that doesn’t kill your brain, but is more reliable than acting/working in theatre/TV/film. Take time to cultivate it. Be creative and resourceful. Try to live a balanced life. I’m not saying make theatre your hobby – but understand that sometimes it might be your passion rather than the thing that pays the bills. It is possible to have two careers.

Surviving in the arts is bloody tough, but it can be the most rewarding and magical job in the world. Enjoy every moment. Wishing you love and strength.

Anna Jordan is a playwright, screenwriter, director and acting tutor. She won the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting 2013 for her play Yen, which was subsequently produced at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, the Royal Court Theatre, London, and in New York. Other work includes Chicken Shop (Park Theatre, 2014),  The Unreturning (Frantic Assembly & Theatre Royal Plymouth, 2018) and Pop Music (Paines Plough & Birmingham Repertory Theatre, 2018). As a director she has worked at venues such as Theatre503, Soho and The Shed, National Theatre, and has taught, directed or written at numerous drama schools including Italia Conti, ArtsEd, RADA, LAMDA and Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Her screenwriting credits include Succession (HBO) and Killing Eve (Sid Gentle/BBC). 


Nathan Bryon: ‘hopefully during this time, we will have moved forward’

Don’t worry – it will all be back to the ‘normal’ crazy industry soon-ish – and hopefully during this time, we have moved forward in many ways and, as an industry, we’ll start reflecting the world around us.

Until then, jump in ya PJs, watch some PROPER trashy reality TV (Selling Sunset on Netflix is FIRE), order some fried chicken, put some prosecco on ice, get yourself a Nivea rehydrating face mask, and pat yourself on the back because YOU MADE IT!

Nathan Bryon is an actor, playwright, screenwriter and author. As an actor, his credits include Some Girls (BBC), Benidorm (ITV) and one-man show Mixed Brain (tiata fahodzi and Paines Plough, Edinburgh Fringe). He has written for critically acclaimed Cbeebies’ animation Rastamouse, BAFTA Award-winning Swashbuckle and on all three series of Cbeebies’ BAFTA-nominated Apple Tree House, and has written plays including Mixed Brain (Edinburgh Fringe Festival, 2017) and Dexter and Winter’s Detective Agency (Paines Plough & Theatr Clwyd tour, 2019). He is also the author of a series of children’s picture books, published by Penguin Random House; the first book in the series, Look Up!, was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize.


Declan Donnellan: ‘we have never needed you so badly’

You know this already but…

At the heart of making theatre is acting.

Acting is not just a job; it is also an art.

Acting, live acting, is increasingly important in an increasingly commoditised world.

For the actor says to the audience: ‘Sometimes I act being me, but sometimes I also act being someone else’ – it reminds us of a very important fact, that we are all many different things. Accepting this can keep us all a bit saner.

In fact, whenever in your life you feel a little bit fake, don’t feel alone or ashamed, it’s often the most precious part of you in revolt.

Only the ad men and politicians want you to believe you should be one thing.

None of us is.

Your job is not to tell the truth. Your job is to make illusions. You will make them as well as you can and you will try not to lie. You will end up lying but you must forgive yourself and try again better, tomorrow. In fact, if the illusion you share is good then it may help people to destroy delusions.

But art like love depends on equality, so we will not make good art if we place ourselves either below or above the audience.

Above all, hang on to your common sense and develop it. It is a better friend to you than logic ever will be.

Keep wondering what is the difference between acting and pretending.

You are not a luxury.

Acting and art is our way back to reality, away from a delusional world.

We have never needed you so badly.

Declan Donnellan is a director, adaptor and author.  With his partner Nick Ormerod, he is the co-founder and joint Artistic Director of Cheek by Jowl, for which they have created over 40 productions, performing in over 400 cities, across six continents. Other directing credits include work at the National Theatre (including the original premiere of both parts of Angels in America) and in London’s West End, as well as numerous international productions. He has received awards in London, Moscow, Paris and New York, including four Olivier Awards, a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for his work in France, the Charlemagne award (shared with Craig Venter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu). He was awarded an OBE in 2017. Declan’s book The Actor and the Target, published in the UK by Nick Hern Books, has been released in more than fifteen languages, including French, Spanish, Italian, German, Romanian and Mandarin.


Andy Nyman: ‘before you know it, the business will be back’

Well, you definitely win the ‘weirdest graduation ever’ award.

Yes, you are entering a business that appears to be in freefall. Yes, the life you have trained so hard for will undergo changes that none of us can quite conceive of yet, and yes, it feels more unpredictable than ever.

But understand this: before you know it, the business will be back – and you and your phenomenal energy will be needed to keep it motoring with a fierce new vigor. So take this respite to stay physically and mentally fit and ready, because, trust me, you have a lifetime of fun and adventures ahead of you in this brilliant, insane business.

Andy Nyman is an actor, writer, director and magician. His screen credits include the TV series Peaky Blinders, Campus and Dead Set, as well as the films Severance, Death at a Funeral, The Commuter, Judy and Jungle Cruise. Stage credits include Hangmen (Wyndham’s Theatre, West End), Abigail’s Party (Menier Chocolate Factory and West End), Assassins (Menier Chocolate Party) and Fiddler on the Roof (Menier Chocolate Factory and West End; nominated for Evening Standard Theatre and Olivier Awards). He is a frequent collaborator with Derren Brown, having co-created TV specials such as Russian Roulette,The System, The Heist and The Event, as well as co-writing and directing most of Derren’s stage shows. Andy’s play Ghost Stories, co-written and co-directed with Jeremy Dyson, originally premiered at the Liverpool Playhouse before a transfer to the Lyric Hammersmith (both co-starring Andy), and has since seen enjoyed multiple West End runs and productions around the world. It was also made into a hit film in 2018, co-written, co-directed and co-starring Andy. His books The Golden Rules of Acting and More Golden Rules of Acting are published by Nick Hern Books.


Danusia Samal: ‘this is a time to take back control’

Congratulations! You’ve made it through three years of hard work, creative and personal challenges, and spine rolls. You’ve worn black clothes every day, spent every waking moment with the same people, been ripped apart and put back together, and now you are free!

Oh no, wait. There’s a global pandemic. Sorry about that.

I’m not going to lie. This is a hard career. The years ahead will be very hard. But with dark times also come positives. Drama schools confronting institutional racism and inherent discrimination? Artists and organisations uniting instead of competing? Actors asking each other ‘How are you?’ instead of ‘What are you working on?’ These didn’t feel possible before. And they are welcome changes we need to hold on to as we build a new normal.

Art has always adapted. In times of crisis it often flourishes and grows, especially at a grassroots level. This is a time to take back control. What is your story? What do you care about? What do you want to make? Question yourself. Question this industry. Find people to collaborate with. Your peers are your most valuable creative resource. Try something new. It might just work!

And do all this knowing, some days you may not be able to get up. And that is totally okay.

You are more than your last job, the agent you signed with, how many casting directors you know. You are uniquely, and brilliantly, you. Break a leg x

Danusia Samal is an actor, writer and singer. As an actor, her stage credits include work at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Court, Shakespeare’s Globe, Soho Theatre and Manchester’s Royal Exchange. Her screen credits include Tyrant, Ghost in the Shell and The Great. Her play Out of Sorts won the Theatre503 International Playwriting Award, premiering at Theatre503. She also wrote and performed in Busking It – a gig-theatre show inspired by her experiences as a London Underground busker – which was commissioned by Shoreditch Town Hall and co-produced by HighTide, going on tour around the UK.


Antony Sher: ‘welcome to a beautiful and mad way of life’

Coming into this profession has always been a tough challenge. It requires enormous reserves of power, resilience, resourcefulness, inventiveness, calmness, patience, and, of course, talent. (A bit of good luck won’t go amiss either.) And that’s just what it’s like in normal circumstances.

For the Class of 2020, it’s all of the above, plus some. Well – good. If you can conquer the present obstacles, you are going to emerge very strong indeed. Not just in your career, but as a person. So, welcome to this beautiful and mad way of life – making theatre, films, TV – and wear your special badge with pride: ‘I belong to the Class of 2020.’

Antony Sher is an actor, author, playwright and artist. Much of his acting career has been spent with the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he has played Richard III, Macbeth, Leontes, Prospero, Shylock, Iago, Falstaff and Lear, as well as the leading roles in other plays including Cyrano de Bergerac, Tamburlaine the GreatDeath of a Salesman. Other stage credits include work at the National Theatre, London, Almeida Theatre, London, in London’s West End, Theatre Royal Bath and Crucible Theatre, Sheffield,  for which he has received numerous awards including two Olivier Awards for Best Actor.  His screen credits include The Wind in the Willows, Mrs. Brown and Shakespeare in Love. He has published novels and a book of his paintings and drawings; his books Year of the King, Year of the Fat Knight, Year of the Mad King, Beside Myself and Primo Time are published by Nick Hern Books.


Thanks so much to all of the NHB authors who took the time to be part of this blog post, and to those who contributed to Part One.

From all of us at Nick Hern Books, we wish all of this year’s graduates the very best of luck in their future careers, and hope that normal times and opportunities return as soon as possible.

‘Dear Class of 2020…’: A message to new drama graduates – Part One

Graduating from a course or degree is always a momentous moment. Mortarboards are tossed in the air in an act of celebration, freedom, and release from years of education and training. Independence, new horizons and the prospect of employment beckon, and the search for a new, post-student identity begins. It’s a huge change no matter what the backdrop – but of course with the COVID-19 pandemic still with us and the UK theatre industry shut down, the Class of 2020 face additional challenges.

In this special blog post – the first of a two-parter – we asked some celebrated theatre-makers (and NHB authors) to offer some words of encouragement to all those now setting out from drama school or university. Read their thoughts below, and see more advice from NHB authors in Part Two of this post.


Mark Gatiss: ‘out of this crisis, great and surprising things will come’ 

When I was at school, back in the fifteenth century, we had to do a week of ‘work experience’. As I wanted to act, I was despatched to the local Arts Centre and into the kindly care of a slightly bewildered tutor where I spent most of the week staring at the walls, eating crisps and taking long lunch breaks in the park – a good preparation, it turned out, for unemployment. On the Friday, though, I was given THE TALK. This was a stark warning of the treacherous, venal, insecure and perpetually disappointing career I had chosen for myself.

What I’m writing now is not, I hope, THE TALK. You will already be all too aware that you’re entering a treacherous, venal, insecure… oh my God, I’m doing it! Well, listen. You know all that. And you know you’re starting out in a time of unprecedented difficulty where the whole thing just got even harder. But you know what? You’re brilliant. You’ve graduated. It’s all still out there. And just by getting this far you’ve shown your mettle. Out of this crisis, some great and surprising things will come. And you’ll be part of them.

Work hard. Be kind. All love and luck to you. x

Mark Gatiss is an actor, comedian, screenwriter, playwright, director, producer and novelist. His many stage and screen credits include co-creating, writing for and acting in hit BBC series Sherlock and Dracula, writing for and acting in Doctor Who, and his work as one of the members of The League of Gentlemen. He won an Olivier Award in 2016 for his role in Three Days in the Country at the National Theatre. He curated and wrote for the collection Queers: Eight Monologues, which was broadcast on BBC Four and performed live at the Old Vic Theatre, and is published by Nick Hern Books.


Natasha Gordon: ‘resilience has brought you this far’

Congratulations! To arrive at Graduation Day, you’ve already wrestled with many voices of doubt (yours, family, old mates en route to ‘proper jobs’, etc.). These inner demons will inevitably loom large now, as you enter the business during one of its most difficult fights for survival. For now, much of my usual advice is inapplicable. Everything is shifting, but some things will remain the same.

The sense of belonging amongst artists and the urgency to create. The first time you felt shook, awakened by a theatrical/cinematic/dramatic experience, the first ‘aha’ moment that captivated you. Your discovery of this majestic world, its capability to transcend, uplift, enlighten, validate, entertain, to connect our human experiences and deepen our understanding of ourselves, each other and the world we inhabit. These all remain the same.

Use this time to discover more about yourself. In knowing yourself you’ll discover the kind of artist you want to be. If you can, develop a routine. Write, film, sing, debate, meditate, organise, galvanise, read, play your instrument, document, record, collaborate with like-minded people, and – importantly – remember to rest.

Art has always survived during times of social and economic upheaval. Survival requires change. Change requires resilience. Resilience has brought you this far, indulge your resolve further still. Keep going. I wish you the very best of luck.

Natasha Gordon is an actor and playwright. Her debut play Nine Night premiered at the National Theatre in 2018, earning Natasha prizes for Most Promising Playwright at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards and the Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards. It later transferred to Trafalgar Studios, becoming the first play by a Black British female playwright to be produced in London’s West End.


Paul Harvard: ‘you have an important role to play in theatre’s recovery’

As human beings, we have always had a fundamental desire to gather together, in one place, at one time, to hear stories being told. It is the very essence of theatre, and fulfils a human need as old as civilisation.

You graduate into what must seem a very frightening world. Our industry, and in particular our theatre, faces an existential crisis. Without significant action from government, many predict the demise of many theatres in this country.

In the midst of this seemingly impossible situation, don’t forget to take time to congratulate yourself on all your hard work over the past few years. Through much endeavour, you have nurtured your creativity and honed your skills. This pandemic doesn’t diminish those achievements; you have so much to offer. So when the sky seems dark as you look out across the immediate horizon, remember that our inbuilt need for stories has not gone away – and some day soon theatre will flourish once again. And you have an important role to play in that recovery. So as you graduate, I offer you a call to arms: be hopeful. Be resilient. Be proactive. Be political.

Paul Harvard is an actor, director, musical director, composer and author whose professional credits include work at the National Theatre, Watermill Theatre, Soho Theatre and Orange Tree Theatre. He is currently Course Leader for BA Acting and MMus Musical Theatre at the University of West London, having previously worked at schools including Urdang Academy, ArtsEd, Guildford School of Acting, Trinity Laban and Italia Conti. His books Acting Through Song, Audition Songs for Men and Audition Songs for Women are published by Nick Hern Books.


Conor McPherson: ‘I can’t wait to see what you will bring to the world’

Congratulations to you all on completing your studies in this most difficult of years. While I know it’s frustrating being unable to get out there and show us all what you do best, this is a wonderful reminder of the fragility of theatre – but also its robustness.

Each moment of live theatre that occurs is gone forever. The very mortality of the live experience is what gives our ghostly passion its power. Yet theatre is the also the most robust of all art forms because it requires almost nothing to achieve its purpose. A space, a performer, and an audience.

Whether it’s a story being told for the first time, or an ancient play being received for the thousandth time, live theatre is a ritual that serves a deep longing for something no other art form can provide. This is why it has endured for millennia. And will continue to endure.

Keep the faith – we will all experience theatre again before too long. And I can’t wait to see what you will bring to the world.

Conor McPherson is a playwright, screenwriter and director whose works include The Weir (Royal Court, London, Duke of York’s, West End and Walter Kerr Theatre, New York; winner of Olivier, Evening Standard, Critics’ Circle and George Devine Awards), Shining City (Royal Court, Gate Theatre, Dublin and Manhattan Theatre Club, New York; nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play), The Seafarer (National Theatre, London, Abbey Theatre, Dublin and Booth Theater, New York; Laurence Olivier, Evening Standard, Tony Award nominations for Best Play), The Night Alive (Donmar Warehouse, London and Atlantic Theater, New York; winner of the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best New Play), and Girl from the North Country, a musical based on the songbook of Bob Dylan (Old Vic Theatre, London, Noël Coward Theatre, West End, Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto, Public Theater and Belasco Theatre, New York).


Jessica Swale: ‘you have exactly the tools to carry on’

You’ve got this. You really have, and I’ll tell you why. Because theatre people are a little bit magic.

Growing up, I always thought theatres were somehow enchanted. The mystery of them – what happens backstage, the transformations, lights in the gloam, the scurrying, the shadows in the dark, the emergence of characters and music and extraordinary landscapes. But more than that, there seemed to be something magic about the people. And to this day, I still believe that. And it’s this:

Theatre people make things happen. Whether you’re actors, makers, idea bakers, limelighters or backstage pullers-of-strings, we start from nothing and make… something. We begin – most of us – with no money, no resources, no career prospects or life plan, often no real idea what we’re doing at all… and yet, we have hope. Hope and optimism and drive and an oddly inexplicable, wilful certainty that, from this nothing, with just a sprinkling of ideas, something will come.

We are makers in adversity. We get stuff done. And theatre has always survived – war, plague, bans, terrible scripts. And it will still. Because, when the normal channels are scuppered, we find other ways.

This is an extraordinary time. Full of challenges and set-backs, moments of profound grief and uncertainty. But we are all creative souls – you are – or you wouldn’t be reading this. So you’ve got this. You have exactly the tools to carry on. Use them. Spend this time imagining, inventing, thinking, sharing. Don’t wait for the phone call. Make a start. And I promise you, you’ll never look back.

I can’t wait to work with you all. Make work from your own hearts. Be yourselves, be original and be courageous. And if in doubt, turn to Maya Angelou: ‘If you’re always trying to be normal you will never know how amazing you can be.’

Jessica Swale is a playwright, screenwriter and director. As a playwright, her works include Blue Stockings (Shakespeare’s Globe, London; nominated for the Evening Standard Theatre Award for Most Promising Playwright and now a set text on the GCSE Drama syllabus), Nell Gwynn (Shakespeare’s Globe, London, Apollo Theatre, West End, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Chicago and Folger Theatre, Washington D.C.; winner of the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy) and a new adaptation of The Jungle Book, featuring original songs by Joe Stilgoe (UK tour). Her debut feature film Summerland, written and directed by Jessica, will be released in 2020.


Harriet Walter: ‘I know you will shape the future’

Welcome to the honourable, unpredictable, thrilling, frustrating, ancient, traditional, ever re-inventable, totally unfair, engrossing, self-obsessing, non-hierarchical, humiliating, generous, wing-stretching, soul-destroying, University of Life that is the acting profession.

My heart goes out to you that you are emerging just now at this unfavourable moment in history, but I know you will shape the future with your passion and find a way through to communicate those passions somehow, somewhere as long as audiences want to hear and see their stories played out in front of them.

You might make a fortune, you might make a pittance, but giving it a try is all. You will make lasting friends and taste many an adventure. The world needs re-shaping and theatre at its best can re-shape the world.

Don’t lose heart. We need you.

Harriet Walter is an actor and author. On stage, she has played many Shakespearean characters including Ophelia, Helena, Portia, Viola, Imogen, Lady Macbeth, Beatrice and Cleopatra (most of them for the RSC), and has also played Brutus, Henry IV and Prospero in all-female productions at the Donmar Warehouse. She has appeared in numerous other classical and contemporary plays around the UK and internationally, and has won awards including Olivier and Evening Standard Theatre Awards. Her screen work includes roles in Atonement, The Sense of an Ending, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Suite Française, BabelSense and Sensibility, Downton Abbey, Succession, Law and Order: UK, Black SailsCall the Midwife and Killing Eve. She is an Honorary Associate Artist of the RSC, an Honorary D.Litt at Birmingham University, and was awarded a CBE in 2000 and a Damehood in 2011. Her books Other People’s Shoes and Brutus and Other Heroines are published by Nick Hern Books.


Thanks so much to all of the NHB authors who took the time to be part of this blog post – find more words of advice and encouragement from NHB authors in Part Two.

From all of us at Nick Hern Books, we wish all of this year’s graduates the very best of luck in their future careers, and hope that normal times and opportunities return as soon as possible.

‘It remains necessary’: Lucy Kerbel on five years of Platform

Five years ago, in 2015, we joined forces with Tonic Theatre, a fantastic organisation working to address the gender imbalance and achieve gender equality in theatre, to create and publish Platform: our series of plays for all-female or mainly female casts, commissioned specifically to be performed by young actors.

The initiative has been a huge success, with hundreds of performances of the plays having been staged around the world. As two new plays join the series – bringing the total to seven – Tonic director Lucy Kerbel reflects on how Platform came about, its impact so far, and why the continued demand for these plays shows why they are still very much needed… 

Five years on since Tonic launched Platform, there are now seven titles in the series – with two new plays, Bright. Young. Things. by Georgia Christou and Heavy Weather by Lizzie Nunnery joining the line-up this month.

All the plays are published by our partners Nick Hern Books and the reach they have had has been extraordinary. Platform plays have been performed by schools, youth theatres, colleges, universities, drama schools, and community theatre groups the length and breadth of the UK. They’ve also found their way on stage in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, New Zealand and the USA.

Production photos of Platform plays, clockwise from top-left: The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan, performed by Elmwood School, Ottawa, Canada; Red by Somalia Seaton, performed by Whitman College, Walla Walla, WA, USA; This Changes Everything by Joel Horwood, performed by Bath Spa University; Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy, performed by Arts University Bournemouth; The Glove Thief by Beth Flintoff, performed by Solihull School, Solihull; Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy, performed by Youth Theatre Masquerade, Msida, Malta

In fact, we worked out recently that a Platform play was being performed somewhere in the world every five days. That’s a huge achievement. It’s testament to their quality; all Platform playwrights have experience and a proven commitment to writing for younger people. They all wrote their plays informed by time spent with young actors as part of the development process alongside input from teachers and youth theatre directors about what makes plays both attractive and practical for young people.

The success is also a reflection of how much Platform is needed. Tonic initially launched the series having conducted research that showed us the majority of young people taking part in youth drama were girls, but the scripts they were working on were, in the main, written to be performed by men. Not only were there not enough roles for everyone who wanted to play a woman, but the girls and young women we met during our research told us the few that were out there tended to be ‘bit parts’ or what, to them, felt like hopelessly outdated stereotypes of femininity that they struggled to connect with.

We wanted to remedy this by providing a regular flow of new plays that responded to the young women showing up in school halls, drama studios and community centres week after week; to reward their commitment and provide material that lets them grow their skill through roles and stories that are demanding, complex, and fun to perform.

Members of the National Youth Theatre performing readings at the launch of Platform at the National Theatre Studio, London, in 2015 (photo by Nick Flintoff)

Most of all, we wanted young people to see that young women’s voices and experiences can be placed centre stage and can make for hugely compelling drama. Platform plays are all big, ambitious pieces dealing with topics as varied and chunky as grief, sedition, climate crisis, post-capitalism and information overload. They all somehow (and this is testament to the writers’ skill) do so in a way that is hopeful, often funny, and ultimately empowering.

The fact that all of them locate girls and young women at the centre of these big topics, and that demand for them has been so extraordinary, is evidence of how much Platform remains necessary. It also creates fire in our bellies to find the next brilliant plays in the series.


Matt Applewhite, Managing Director of Nick Hern Books, on Platform’s role in helping drive forward necessary change…

In the seven years since Lucy and I first began talking about Platform, the world has witnessed enormous change. In some ways for the better; in many ways not; and in others which we’re only starting to grapple with – and not before time.

Platform has and will continue to play its part in driving forward that change, with creative ambition, open-hearted optimism, and far-sighted political purpose. It’s an honour to publish and license the plays, amplifying and giving voice not just to their writers’ remarkable words, but also to the thousands of young women (and men) who have performed them around the world.

These seven fantastic plays would sit proudly on any stage, and are proof (not that any more is needed) that theatre for young people is a force for urgent, positive change. I encourage – urge – you to read and perform them.

The seven Platform plays so far


Nick Hern Books is proud to publish and partner with Tonic Theatre on Platform. Seven plays in the series are now available to read and perform – see more about each via the links below.

The Platform plays are also licensed for performance by Nick Hern Books; visit our website to start your licence application.

 

Nicholas Wright on writing his plays

Today, 27 June 2020, marks the 80th birthday of playwright Nicholas Wright. Born in South Africa in 1940, over the course of his long and illustrious career he has established himself as one of the UK’s most-respected dramatists. His plays have been staged at leading venues including at the National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal & Derngate in Northampton, Almeida Theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre and in London’s West End, as well as internationally. He has also won numerous awards, including the Olivier Award for Best New Play for Vincent in Brixton in 2003.

Here, to mark the occasion, Nicholas reflects on five of his many notable plays, how many of them draw on his own life and experiences, and pays tribute to the many people who’ve helped make his remarkable career possible.


Mrs Klein

Zoe Waites, Nicola Walker and Clare Higgins in the 2009 revival of Mrs Klein at the Almeida Theatre, London (photo by Tristram Kenton)

I first heard of the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein when I was very young. A friend at drama school invited me around to her house one Sunday: she was Harriet, the daughter of George Devine, the director of the Royal Court Theatre. Her father was living elsewhere and the house – a romantic old place on the bank of the Thames – now revolved around his wife Sophie, a much-respected stage designer who had made it a regular Sunday home for impecunious young people. I went there often. It was my first encounter with English middle-class, semi-bohemian life, and a great education for a young and raw South African.

The presence of the Royal Court was felt throughout the house. Its star director, Tony Richardson, lived on the top floor in a flat containing an aviary peopled by exotic birds including a real toucan. Richardson’s partner was a social worker named George Goetschius: a big bear-like, bearded American, twinkly-eyed, who was said to have formed the Royal Court policy of being ‘a writers’ theatre’. Like all real intellectuals, he had the gift of making everything he talked about sound interesting. He spoke about religion, ethics, social change, always with a dry American wit and, in his hands, psychoanalysis became a labyrinth of infinite fascination. Surprisingly, while working in New York, he had met and got to know Melanie Klein’s estranged daughter, Melitta Schmideberg.

It’s Goetschius’s angle on analysis that I drew on when, many years later, I wrote Mrs Klein. I read Klein’s books and papers and found her thinking difficult but rewarding. It’s more dynamic than the conventional analytic notion of emotions being displaced from one place to another, like water being poured in and out of buckets. With Klein, the relations between us are in a state of flux, transformed this way and that by our perceptions, with the mother always centre-stage in the psychic drama.


Cressida

The cover to the playscript of Cressida, published by Nick Hern Books alongside its premiere at the Albery Theatre (now Noël Coward Theatre), London, in 2000, starring Michael Gambon

Cressida is based on my life as a child actor. During the war, while my father was away, I was taught to read by my grandmother and became precociously fluent, so when the local broadcasting company needed a little boy who could sight-read, I was a shoo-in. I made my radio debut at the age of six, after which I was on the air most weeks. At twelve, I gave what I’m told was a chilling performance as the corrupted schoolboy in a stage adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, and by then I knew all there is to know about the joys and pains of pre-pubescent acting, not to mention the cut-throat rivalry that rages between one child-actor and another.

My acting career dwindled away as I got older. Child actors aren’t really acting anyway: they’re simply trying to win approval and, once you reach adolescence, that doesn’t work for you or anyone else. There’s something melancholy about the ephemeral nature of childhood talent and one could say the same thing about theatre in general. Nothing about it lasts, except in memory.

While I was writing Cressida I did a lot of what people call research, though I don’t think of it like that. It’s more like rummaging around until I feel comfortable in the world of the play. That’s how I learned about John Shank’s dodgy practices and Stephen Hammerton’s rise to stardom. I became fascinated by the phenomenon of gender-crossing acting by boys and I wondered what the attraction of it was. Was it their brilliance at impersonating women? Or was something weirder going on: was the cross-dressing in itself an attraction? I also wondered what would happen if a girlish boy, such as I was at that age, were to play women’s roles. Would he be better or worse at the job? That’s one of the things that Cressida is about.


Vincent in Brixton

Peter McGovern and Janine Birkett in the 2013 revival of Vincent in Brixton at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick (photo by Keith Pattison)

When I was writing Vincent in Brixton, I had in my mind the painterly contrast between the foggy streets of Victorian London and the incandescent blaze of colour that we associate with van Gogh. I thought back to my Sunday afternoons in the house of Sophie Devine: her artist’s appreciation of homely things, not least the large and weathered kitchen table that she used to scrub with Vim and that I placed, unchanged, at the heart of the action.

Van Gogh turned out to be the most remarkable man I’d ever studied. I read his marvellous letters to his brother. I discovered his omnivorous reading – all Shakespeare, all Dickens, all George Eliot and Mrs Gaskell – his soaring ambition and his reckless commitment to his art. I learned how the radicalism of nineteenth-century London illuminated his thinking and his work, and I discovered the manic depression that would torment him throughout his life.


The Reporter

The cover to the playscript of The Reporter, published by Nick Hern Books alongside its premiere at the National Theatre, London, in 2007

Depression is a theme in all five of these plays. The Reporter is the story of a man who ended his life because of it. The insidious thing about this illness is that it disguises itself as a perfectly sane appraisal of an unbearable world, rather than the distorted view that it really is. Thus, while Mossman, as I’ve written him, knows that something is badly wrong, he doesn’t know what it is and we, the audience, discover the truth only obliquely.

The play is set in and around the BBC of the 1960s, where I worked as a floor assistant, i.e. glorified callboy. I was present in the early scene of the play where the irascible interviewer Robin Day takes over at short notice from the ailing Richard Dimbleby. I knew Mossman very slightly from his august and elegant backstage presence in discussion programmes. Louis I knew better: I’d met him when I was twenty-one, when his brilliant mind and his charisma bowled me over.


8 Hotels

Tory Kittles and Emma Paetz in the premiere production of 8 Hotels at Chichester Festival Theatre in 2019 (photo by Manuel Harlan)

Finally, 8 Hotels. When Mrs Klein was produced in New York, the title role was played by the great American actress Uta Hagen. Once it had finished its off-Broadway run, the production set off on a national tour and it was at the opening date, San Francisco, that I had the idea for the play.

Uta, the director William Carden and I were having dinner after the show in a once-grand but somewhat down-at-heel hotel. It was Uta who had chosen the place, and I wondered why. Then I noticed her mood of elation. ‘Oh, I am so happy!’ she rasped, and I understood. During World War II, she and her lover – the singer and activist Paul Robeson – had toured the country in Othello, with her husband José Ferrer as Iago. One of their dates was San Francisco, and this hotel was surely where all three of them had stayed. Had Robeson been allowed through the front door, I wondered? Or, like other people of colour, was he sent round to the goods entrance?

Both he and Uta were larger-than-life figures, hugely talented and politically aware. The difference is that, for Robeson, acting and singing were necessary tools in his political work: they gave him profile, they got him heard, they enabled him to get his message across to the world. His art was useful but subordinate. For Uta, it was the whole purpose of her life. 8 Hotels is about these two contrasting paths, with rewards and penalties lying in wait whichever one chooses.


‘I’ve been luckier than I deserve’

Nicholas Wright (r) with regular collaborator Richard Eyre (l) (photo by Bruce Glikas)

A few sources: I couldn’t have written Mrs Klein without the help of Phyllis Grosskurth’s classic biography. Martin Bailey’s book Van Gogh in England was indispensable, Stephen Orgel’s Impersonations opened my eyes to the ambiguities of Jacobean theatrical cross-dressing, and I’m grateful to Professor Martin Dubermann for access to his unpublished interviews with Uta Hagen.

Anyone who has a play produced knows how much is owed to everyone else who touches it. These five plays were directed by three superb directors (Richard Eyre, Peter Gill and Nicholas Hytner) and I’m grateful to them all, as I am to the actors and designers I’ve been lucky enough to work with. Looking back over a long-ish life, I feel that I’ve been luckier than I deserve.


Nick Hern Books is proud to publish Nicholas Wright’s plays – you can browse his work, available to purchase at a 20% discount, here.

Author photo by Dan Wooller.

‘A hero, a leader, a true warrior’ – a tribute to Larry Kramer

We’re saddened to hear the news of writer and activist Larry Kramer, who sadly died on 27 May 2020 at the age of 84. Nick Hern Books is proud to publish his passionate, vital play The Normal Heart, set during the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in New York in the 1980s. Here, we celebrate Larry Kramer and his work – read the text of a letter given out to audiences at performances of The Normal Heart, the story of his first play, and a personal tribute from NHB’s Managing Director, Matt Applewhite

A copy of this letter was given to every member of the audience – often by Larry in person – as they left the theatre after the 2011 Broadway revival of The Normal Heart.

A Letter from Larry Kramer

PLEASE KNOW

Thank you for coming to see our play.

Please know that everything in The Normal Heart happened. These were and are real people who lived and spoke and died, and are presented here as best I could. Several more have died since, including Bruce, whose name was Paul Popham, and Tommy, whose name was Rodger McFarlane and who became my best friend, and Emma, whose name was Dr Linda Laubenstein of New York University Medical Center. She died after a return bout of polio and another trip to an iron lung. Rodger, after building three gay/AIDS agencies from the ground up, committed suicide in despair. On his deathbed at Memorial, Paul called me (we’d not spoken since our last fight in this play) and told me to never stop fighting.

(Left-right) Paul Popham, Rodger McFarlane and Linda Laubenstein, who are all depicted in The Normal Heart

Four members of the original cast died as well, including my dear sweet friend Brad Davis, the original Ned, whom I knew from practically the moment he got off the bus from Florida, a shy kid intent on becoming a fine actor, which he did.

Please know that AIDS is a worldwide plague.

Please know that no country in the world, including this one, especially this one, has ever called it a plague, or dealt with it as a plague.

Please know that there is no cure.

Please know that after all this time the amount of money being spent to find a cure is still miniscule, still almost invisible, still impossible to locate in any national health budget, and still totally uncoordinated.

Please know that here in America case numbers continue to rise in every category. In much of the rest of the world, like Russia, India, South-east Asia, and in Africa, the numbers of the infected and the dying are so grotesquely high they are rarely acknowledged.

Please know that all efforts at prevention and education continue their unending record of abject failure.

Please know that there is no one in charge of this plague. This is a war for which there is no general and for which there has never been a general. How can you win a war with no one in charge?

Please know that beginning with Ronald Reagan (who would not say the word ‘AIDS’ publicly for seven years), every single president has said nothing and done nothing, or in the case of the current president, says the right things and then doesn’t do them.

Please know that most medications for HIV/AIDS are inhumanly expensive and that government funding for the poor to obtain them is dwindling and often unavailable.

Please know that pharmaceutical companies are among the most evil and greedy nightmares ever loosed on humankind. What ‘research’ they embark upon is calculated only toward finding newer drugs to keep us, just barely, from dying, but not to make us better or, God forbid, cured.

Please know that an awful lot of people have needlessly died and will continue to needlessly die because of any and all of the above.

Please know that as I write this the world has suffered at the very least some seventy-five million infections and thirty-five million deaths. When the action of the play that you have just seen begins, there were forty-one.

I have never seen such wrongs as this plague, in all its guises, represents, and continues to say about us all.

Larry Kramer, New York, 2011

Joe Mantello as Ned Weeks (left) and John Benjamin Hickey as Felix Turner (right), in the 2011 Broadway revival of The Normal Heart (Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)


A piece by Larry Kramer from 2013 anthology My First Play: An Anthology of Theatrical Beginnings.

I sat in my short pants at a makeshift card table in our front yard on a lovely afternoon in spring in suburban Maryland and wrote in longhand about baseball players. I hated baseball and I hated my father (who called me a sissy) so I guess I was trying to please him and I ran out of steam after but a few pages. I guess I was eight or nine, maybe ten. The next ‘first’ play was a pageant I wrote for the Cub Scouts about I can’t even imagine what and remember only that it was a hit, particularly with my mother who said some- thing to the tune of, ‘I didn’t know you could write, dear.’ I was however old Cub Scouts are, twelve maybe.

My first real ‘first play’ was something called Sissies’ Scrapbook, which I wrote when I was in my early thirties (after my Women in Love film adaptation), serious stuff, following four Yale roommates through the years. It was done in a workshop at the old and first Playwrights Horizons, where it seemed to go down very well (people actually cried, which is what I wanted, and I fully remember the power of that feeling: I wrote something that made people cry).

However, upon its transfer to off-Broadway under the title of Four Friends, Clive Barnes of The New York Times wrote, ‘With friends like these you don’t need enemies,’ and we closed on opening night. So wounded did I allow myself to be that I didn’t write another play for many many years. I was to learn much later that Barnes not only arrived a half-hour late but was drunk, now a matter of public record. Imagine that: the chief drama critic of The New York Times was a drunk. I wonder how many other playwrights never wrote another play because of this. Now I look back and see how much time I wasted, that the playwright who just won a Tony at age seventy- seven had many more plays within him that he should have written had he not been such a sissy.

My First Play: An Anthology of Theatrical Beginnings, compiled by Nick Hern, 2013


Matt Applewhite, Managing Director of Nick Hern Books, shares a personal tribute to Larry Kramer, whom he recounts meeting in 2011.

The 2011 revival of The Normal Heart did not strike me as a history play (even though it chronicles a dark period some three decades earlier) nor just a masterpiece of dramatic writing (even though it is) – but one of the most vital, important and relevant plays of our time, crystal clear in its insight, its humanity, its righteous anger. A clarion call to action.

Stumbling out of a matinee performance onto West 45th Street, with tears still hot on my cheeks, I called its author, whose work we already published but I’d never yet met. ‘Let’s meet for coffee,’ he rasped, and thirty minutes later I was in Larry’s book-lined apartment at the bottom of Fifth Avenue, overlooking the Washington Square Arch.

For several hours I was entranced by his staggering mind, more engaged and alive than that of a man half his seventy-five years. He hadn’t softened or mellowed over the decades. And why should he? For a true warrior, the fight is never over. A better day is always worth fighting for – and Larry was unfaltering in that aim, through his art, his activism, with uncompromising ferocity, sincerity and courage.

Over the subsequent years he asked me to send him new British plays and books about the theatre. His apartment may not have had space for more books – but his mind did. It was as boundless as the Great Plains. He was a hero, a leader, a champion – not just for LGBTQ+ people, but for anyone who cares about our world. We are lucky to have had him.


Nick Hern Books is proud to publish Larry Kramer’s passionate, polemical drama The Normal Heart.

Author photo courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival.

Putting autism on the stage: Jody O’Neill on her innovative and myth-busting new play

Inspired by her own experiences with autism, actor and writer JODY O’NEILL set out to write a play that would celebrate autistic identity whilst engaging autistic and non-autistic audiences alike. The resulting play, What I (Don’t) Know About Autism, has just finished a sell-out run at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, on the Peacock stage. Here, she explains why she felt it was so necessary to write, and how the production was designed to make it accessible to people with autism…

The genesis of What I (Don’t) Know About Autism came in 2016, along with my son’s autism diagnosis.

We left the private clinic that had diagnosed him with two things:

  1. What we thought was solid advice.
  2. A sense of relief that our child was the same child we’d had before. We just had an answer now for why certain things were a struggle.

My own autism diagnosis followed three years later, in June 2019, and in the time in between these two major life events, What I (Don’t) Know About Autism came into being.

What happened was that the solid advice we thought we’d left the clinic with turned out to be not so solid after all. At first, we followed it blindly, not knowing any better.

  1. “Find an ABA tutor.”
  2. “Start intensive early intervention as quickly as possible.”
  3. “Normalise your child to give him the best possible chance of success.”

We couldn’t find an ABA tutor. I did an ABA course instead. ABA stands for Applied Behavioural Analysis, and it is a system of training based on receiving a reward for exhibiting a desirable behaviour. Think Pavlov’s Dogs. For example, a child with autism makes ‘good’ eye contact, they are given a sweet. It’s problematic for many reasons, and so I had mixed feelings about what I learned.

We couldn’t gain access to early intervention. All doors were closed.  The waiting list was three years, at least.

And we simply didn’t want to ‘normalise’ our child. We already loved him very much the way he was.

And so, we began to dig around online, to make connections to local support groups, to attend some courses, and lo and behold, we stumbled our way into the autism community.

With that discovery came the realisation that so much of the ‘expert’ information we had been given was the exact opposite of what autistic adults were saying would have helped them when they were children. Indeed, many autistic adults consider ABA to be, at best, ineffective. Just taking my previous example, ABA teaches a child with autism to make eye contact for a reward, not in order to communicate in a meaningful way. At worst, ABA is considered a form of abuse. Where the experts were talking of intervention and modification, autistic people pleaded for empathy and acceptance. Which sounds more humane to you?

The cast of What I (Don’t) Know About Autism at the Abbey Theatre (Peacock), Dublin, 2020: Paula McGlinchey, Eleanor Walsh, Shay Croke, Jayson Murray, Jody O’Neill & Matthew Ralli (photo Ros Kavanagh)

As a parent, I wanted to learn as much as I could, as quickly as I could. I couldn’t understand why this information wasn’t getting out there. How easily we could have gone down a road that risked being so detrimental to our child.

As an artist, I wanted to find a way to get this subject matter into the public eye, because it was urgent, it was humane and it had all the ingredients for good art.

I set out to write a play with two aims: to promote autism acceptance and to celebrate autistic identity. And, at first, I had this burning idea for a play that would be set in a future world where babies are grown in labs to the genetic specifications their computer-love-matched parents have selected for them. Anomalies have been wiped out. Disorders are ancient history. But innovation is suddenly at a complete standstill. Something is missing, and that thing arrives in the form of the child of parents who decide to go about reproducing the old-fashioned way. An autistic child…

That’s what I meant to write, but something happened. I got completely sidetracked by my research, and I realised there was another play I needed to write first. A play that would act as a theatrical introduction to autism – from an autistic perspective. A play that would dispel damaging myths and reveal important truths. A play that could open up a little shaft in the mind of the viewer, through which acceptance might come pouring through.

And so, I wrote the twenty-six scenes that comprise What I (Don’t) Know About Autism. Some of those scenes connect narratively to each other, some thematically, and some of them stand alone, but all of them explore different aspects of autism. The play contains over thirty characters, who can be played by just six performers (more if required). At times, the performers appear to come out of character completely to speak to each other and the audience. Indeed, there are two scenes called ‘Question Time’ that are completely improvised each night, giving the audience the opportunity  to ask questions about the play. Another device that emerged during the writing process was that of the Interrupting Voice, a character who, to an extent, functions as the voice of the audience within the play, stopping the action to question, provoke or unpack what is happening onstage.

During each ‘Question Time’ scene, the audience can ask any questions they like, while one cast member times the scene with a giant egg timer (photo Ros Kavanagh)

In terms of the production, I had a few requirements from the outset…

It was crucial that at least half of the cast members would be autistic. Embracing the disability maxim ‘Nothing about us without us’, I wanted autistic voices representing autism onstage at Ireland’s national theatre. Bear in mind, I was only starting to realise at this point that I might be one of the ‘us’. But it was imperative from the outset that autistic people would be part of every aspect of the creative process.

If we were going to be celebrating autism, then I wanted autistic people to be able to come to the party. Therefore, it was going to be a relaxed performance, where traditional theatre etiquette is set aside. The house lights would remain on throughout; ear defenders would be made available to audience members; loud noises onstage would be flagged in advance; noises from the audience would be welcomed; the audience would be free to move around; and if anyone had to leave the auditorium during the performance, they would always be readmitted. They’re simple accommodations, but for some adult autistic people it meant they could come to a play for the first time ever.

Flipcharts on either side of the stage display the titles of the scenes, which are crossed out as the play progresses (photo Ros Kavanagh)

Choreography would be central to the creative process. I trained as a dancer, and so my plays tend to have a lot of movement, but the choreography had another purpose here. Stimming (or self-stimulatory behaviour) is the repetitive movements, gestures and vocal tics that autistic people commonly have. Stims might range from small things like pen-tapping or humming, to bigger things like spinning, running in specific patterns, rocking, flapping. For autistic people, stimming has important functions – self-regulating, expressing emotions, communication. Historically, stimming has been repressed by parents and teachers because it makes a child stand out as atypical. This repression had sound roots way back when standing out was enough to get you institutionalised or worse, but these days it’s more down to the fact that stimming might be distracting or embarrassing for the autistic person’s carers or guardians. But early in my writing process, I remember being at a family fun day and watching a child who was on a bouncy castle with my son. She wasn’t bouncing. Her movement was beautiful. It was rhythmic. It was stimming. It was heartfelt. It was dancing. I knew then that stimming would be an essential part of what I was writing.

What I (Don’t) Know About Autism at the Abbey Theatre, with a cast of autistic and non-autistic actors (photo Ros Kavanagh)

Lastly, I knew that I wanted to represent female autism, partly because I felt it was so underrepresented in the media and in the arts, and because autism in females is generally so under-diagnosed. But also, maybe because somewhere in my unconscious was the seed of an idea of where my personal journey would lead to.

What I didn’t know was how the production would be received. I thought people might be angry. I thought people might be confused. I thought maybe nobody would come.

But in fact most of the performances sold out weeks in advance. And so, I found myself on 1 February 2020, the date of our first preview at the Abbey Theatre, with an impending sense of doom – wondering what on earth I’d been thinking, wishing we could give all the tickets back, and send all copies of the book to the great big shredder in the sky.

But it was too late for that. And what followed were two extraordinary weeks, meeting autistic people, parents, teachers, health workers and just plain regular theatre goers who told us that their outlooks, their lives, the lives of their children or students, would change as a result of what they had seen. Autistic people said they felt represented onstage for the first time; parents told us they will no longer stop their children from stimming in public; teachers said they had learned more during the performance than they had at all the autism training courses they had attended; a mother realised she could finally speak to her son about his diagnosis.

Having finished the first run of the show a few weeks ago, I’m only beginning to take stock. I’m hopeful that there’s demand for the production to have another outing in Ireland and internationally, and I also hope that other companies might consider taking on the show, so that it can have as wide a reach as possible.

In terms of the text, my strong sense is that for the play to be performed, at least half the cast needs to be autistic. The script itself is a flexible blueprint. The ‘Question Time’ scenes need careful preparation and training, so that they work in performance. Apart from that, everything is up for grabs.

What I (Don’t) Know About Autism at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, 2020 (photo Ros Kavanagh)


What I (Don’t) Know About Autism by Jody O’Neill was co-produced by Jody O’Neill and the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, in association with The Everyman, Cork, and Mermaid County Wicklow Arts Centre, Bray. It was first performed, on the Abbey’s Peacock Stage, in February 2020.

The playtext of What I (Don’t) Know About Autism is out now, published in paperback and ebook formats by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £7.99 (RRP £9.99), visit the Nick Hern Books website.

For further information about performing the play, and the availability of amateur performing rights, contact the Nick Hern Books Performing Rights Manager.

Author photo by Viktor Cibulka. Production shots by Ros Kavanagh.

VAULT 2020: the best new work at London’s VAULT festival

VAULT Festival, London’s biggest arts and entertainment festival, is now underway in Waterloo, where it runs until 22 March. With hundreds of events taking place throughout the eight weeks of the festival, including theatre, comedy, cabaret, immersive experiences, family shows, late-night parties, pop-up events and more, there’s something for everyone. And to celebrate the publication of Plays from VAULT 5, an exciting collection of five of the best plays from the festival, we asked the authors whose work is featured in the anthology to tell us a bit about their play, and what VAULT means to them – plus, at the bottom, a few handy tips on what to see at this year’s festival…

Tatty Hennessy on her play Something Awful, 28 Jan–2 Feb:

In 2014 in a small town in Wisconsin, three teenage girls went on a walk in the woods. Only two of them were meant to come back. Those two had lured their friend to the forest with the intention of murder – a sacrifice to appease the Slenderman, a fictional online horror story these girls had come to believe with a powerful and devastating conviction. The girl survived her ordeal. The story of her attack went viral. Sony made a blockbuster movie about the Slenderman. It tanked.

I was enthralled and disturbed by this story, of a viral online horror meme – the sort I remembered vividly from my own teenage years – seeming to reach out beyond the screen and become real, really real, firstly in those girls’ minds and then in their actions. It seemed to me a story of the peculiar intensity of female teenage friendship and enmity, of the increasingly fine line between stories and facts, of how our online worlds change our offline selves. And of women and violence – as consumers and perpetrators. Why are so many women drawn to stories of the worst things that can happen to us? How do young women adapt and cope in a world that is legitimately threatening?

I didn’t really know what to do with those questions, or with the unease they gave me, so I wrote a play about them.  Something Awful is not a story about those sad, shocking events in Wisconsin six years ago. It’s a complete fiction, but one that owes something to facts.

It also felt like an opportunity to do something we rarely do on stage, and about which I’m passionate: to take the lives of teenage girls as serious subjects for artistic examination. And I hope it’s also funny, because I don’t think I’ve ever met a teenage girl who wasn’t funny. Hopefully it will scare you, and make you think again about what we should be scared of.


Charlotte Chimuanya on her play Second Home, 26–28 Feb:

Second Home is about a crisis of identity, even in a place of solace. It’s the story of a mixed-race girl at age ten, fifteen and twenty, spending her summers in Ireland.

The plot is based on my own experiences growing up; I’m half Nigerian and half Irish. This isn’t a complete biography, but I have given away some of my most embarrassing stories of unrequited love. 

We follow the protagonist, Naomi, through her formative years. Dealing with the usual: boys, insecurities and underage drinking. However she has a dark cloud hanging over her, which we watch her tackle as it expands.

It is extremely important to me that I produce work that highlights black women and lifts them up, because we live in a society that treats black women with the least integrity.

I’m delighted to have my debut play showcased at VAULT this year. It’s a hub of fresh and unique talent, so I’m in great company and there’s always a sparkle in the air.


Rosa Hesmondhalgh on her play Madame Ovary, 18–23 Feb:

Madame Ovary is a one-person monologue following a 23 year old as she attempts to reboot her life at the start of the new year. She makes resolutions about taking care of her body, finding love and creating art that will dent the world. But before January’s even over, she’s diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and her three resolutions take on a bit of a different meaning.

This play is about my own experience with ovarian cancer. I had to give up acting during chemotherapy, which had been my one and only THING for so long. I’d always privately written, but to give my brain something to do from my sick bed I decided to write a blog – called Madame Ovary – about what was happening to me, with the hope to raise some awareness about cancer in young adults (34 are diagnosed every day). Once I got the all clear (and finished celebrating), I wanted to turn that blog into a show. Which was dead hard. I met Adam Small, AD of Wildchild Productions, who agreed to direct and produce it, and helped me get it to Edinburgh. He was the human version of a cup of tea – he calmed me down but lifted me up, and helped make Madame Ovary what it is now.

I’m so excited to be at VAULT 2020. My first time at VAULT was seeing my best friend Rebecca Tebbett in James Huntrods’ incredible play about climate change activism, Cause, in 2018. I’d just finished my second round of chemo and was shedding my hair, full of mouth ulcers and not really allowed to leave the house – but getting to see my best pal in such a brilliant play as part of such a fantastic festival was a really nice reminder that theatre was still there, and I hadn’t left that bit behind despite being ill. Being part of it, two years later, amongst artists I admire so much, feels really special.


Zoë Templeman-Young and Sam McLaughlin from Écoute Theatre, on their play Take Care, 10–15 Mar:

SAM: Take Care is inspired by – and comes straight from the mouths of – the many unheard voices of carers for older people. It’s an explosive piece of documentary theatre, and also pretty funny. In a dark way.

ZOE: Yeah, we try and make people feel like it’s okay to laugh, from the beginning. When you’re a carer, your sense of humour becomes pretty sharp.

SAM: In terms of the plot, the play follows Pam as she campaigns to move her mother to a care home that’s closer to her. Along the way, the audience meets many other characters involved in the care system in some way.

ZOE: There might be some familiar voices in there too, some politicians who weren’t as famous a few years ago as they are now…

SAM: Zoë and I have both worked as carers for members of our family – and we saw that there were a whole range of issues not being addressed for carers. We also didn’t fancy doing a 10, 000 word dissertation at University and so we began creating Take Care and interviewing carers. Six years ago now! When we heard we’d be performing it at VAULT 2020, we were over the moon. I think Ross Kemp captured the feeling pretty well when he said: ‘You will never know what that means to me. That is everything. EVERY. THING.’ To sum up – we were delighted. Not least because, through VAULT Festival, we have the opportunity to reach so many more people with these amazing real-life stories of carers.

ZOE: It’s also incredible to be able to contact the carers we interviewed over the years and tell them that not only will their stories be performed at such a prestigious and exciting festival, they’ll also now be appearing in print, in the Nick Hern Books anthology. That was the cherry on top.


Isabel Dixon on her play Heroes, 18–20 Feb:

Heroes is the story of a secret which blows a family apart. It’s also about our heroes (no surprises there) and what we do when the people we idolise do something we feel we can’t forgive.

It’s set in two time frames: 1991, on a night when David Bowie plays a gig in Brixton, and 2016, on the morning of his death. The two timeframes intertwine throughout the play – sometimes both of them playing out onstage at the same time.

I’m a huge Bowie fan – I grew up with his music, it’s a massive part of the fabric of my life – and his death was the first celebrity death that felt genuinely emotional for me. I’m also fascinated by the fact that a lot of those big rock ‘n’ roll stars who shaped the musical landscape got away with doing things which are shocking and taboo. In particular, I remember feeling really conflicted when, just after Bowie’s death, Lori Maddox stated in interviews that she’d had a sexual relationship with him when she was just fourteen.

Since I wrote the play (in 2016/17) the entire #MeToo movement has happened, and many of these issues have come into focus. Can you separate an artist’s life, and some of the terrible things they did, from the art they’ve created?

But at its heart, Heroes is a family story. Sometimes, our idols are people we’re close to. How do you respond when someone you love does something unforgiveable?

I genuinely can’t wait to be at VAULT. It’s such a special place – it’s unlike any other festival you’ll go to, and the fact that it’s in a railway tunnel makes it feel like you’ve stumbled into Wonderland. It’s also genuinely game-changing for artists and audiences alike. It’s magical.


What to see at VAULT Festival 2020…

With this year’s festival about to open on 28 January, we asked our authors which shows from this year’s programme they were most excited to see. Check out their picks:

Tatty Hennessy: Aside from all the excellent plays included in the Nick Hern Books anthology… I’m a huge fan of Barry McStay. His play Vespertilio at VAULT 2019, about lonely bats and lonely men, was beautiful and funny and heartbreaking; it took a story about science and looked at it from a unique and human angle, and I think he’s going to do it again for Mars and space exploration with The First (11–16 Feb). I’m always excited to see PECS (1 Feb) because anything that manages to be both an insightful full-body take down of the rigidity of societal gender norms and a full-on dance party riot at the same time is a winner in my book. And I can’t wait to see Patricia Gets Ready (For a Date With the Man Who Used to Hit Her) (5–9 Feb) because it has probably the best title of the festival and because Martha Watson Allpress is a really exciting writer and I can’t wait to see more from her.

Charlotte Chimuanya: Some of the shows I’m excited to see are: She Is A Place Called Home (3–8 Mar), a collision of culture and religion, with some traditional Nigerian dancing; Pyneapple (17–19 Mar), which looks spicy – I missed its earlier run at The Bunker Theatre, so I’m glad it’s back; and The Cocoa Butter Club (20 Mar) – with a tagline like ‘Decolonise and Re-moisturise’, how could I resist this voguing cabaret act!

Rosa Hesmondhalgh: I’m so excited to see all the other plays published in the Plays from VAULT 5 anthology, particularly Something Awful (28 Jan2 Feb). Also, First Time (28 Jan2 Feb) by Nathaniel Hall. I can’t wait to see my Ed Fringe faves again, LOVE (Watching Madness) (1416 Feb) by Izzy Kabban/SpeakUp Theatre, and Since U Been Gone (49 Feb) by Teddy Lamb who are both making theatre that makes me so excited. I also have a huge performer’s crush on Katie Arnstein’s work, so very excited to see Sticky Door (1116 Feb).

Zoë Templeman-Young & Sam McLaughlin: We’re really looking forward to seeing Imogené: The Improvised Pop Concert (2628 Feb), which is an amazing clowning/pop concert performance by the incredible Delight Creative. Also we’re definitely going to catch On Arriving (49 Feb) by Ivan Faute, directed by Cat Robey and performed by Sophia Eleni. It’s a one-woman show about a young refugee fighting for survival. To be honest, there’s so much exciting work to see we can’t wait to catch as much as possible.

Isabel Dixon: I’m really excited for all the rest of the plays in the Nick Hern Books anthology, it’s an honour to be in the midst of such a great bunch. I also can’t wait for Catherine Kolubayev’s Bin Juice (1015 Mar) (I saw a short version last year and loved it); LOVE (Watching Madness) (1416 Feb) and Mustard Doesn’t Go With Girls (1422 Mar), which were two of my Edinburgh 2019 highlights; The Thelmas’ new shows, Santi & Naz (28 Jan2 Feb) and Notch (1923 Feb); and all three shows from the brilliant Katie Arnstein: Bicycles and Fish (16 Feb), Sexy Lamp (16 Feb) and Sticky Door (1116 Feb).

Plays from VAULT 5, containing five of the best plays from this year’s festival, is published by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £11.99 (RRP £14.99), visit our website now.

Collections from previous VAULT Festivals are also available on our website here.

VAULT Festival 2020 runs from 28 January – 22 March at the Vaults, Waterloo, London. Visit the festival website here.

‘Starting sombre, ending wild’: John O’Donovan on a generation afflicted by austerity, in his new play Flights

JOHN O’DONOVAN is a London-based playwright from Co. Clare, Ireland. His new play Flights – which opens in Dublin this week after a short run in his home-town of Ennis, and transfers to the Omnibus Theatre, Clapham, in February – looks at a generation that has been shaped by austerity. Here, he discusses the inspiration for the play, and argues that the common view of a crisis in masculinity overlooks what’s really going on…

Flights is a play that’s very close to my heart. I’ve been writing it on and off for about five years now, using characters that are kind of like grown-up versions of characters I wrote about in my first ever full-length play. It is set very specifically in the here and now (the here being the west of Ireland) while at the same time being about generational memory and the inescapability of histories – both personal and public.

Initially Flights was not much more than a fairly funny short play about someone throwing his own going-away party (that almost no one shows up to); but while I was sketching out that early draft, I got some bad news that a guy from back home had died by suicide.

A few of us living over in England got together once we heard the news – we weren’t going home for the funeral so we went to a pub in London instead, aiming to share stories we had of him, and all the other people we’d known who’ve died prematurely over the years since school, whether through suicide, car accidents, drink or terminal illnesses.

It seemed like a lot – a dozen maybe? – definitely too many. But it also seemed kind of old hat, like we’d been here before. We already knew what to do: gather, tell stories, find out who to contact, ask if they wanted flowers or a donation, then get in touch with whoever we thought might need to be gotten in touch with and make sure again that we were all alright.

Rhys Dunlop and Colin Campbell in rehearsal for Flights by John O’Donovan, 2020 (photo by Ste Murray)

I’ve had a lot of conversations like that over the years. A lot of nights out on the beer in remembrance. Getting rounds in and sharing stories. Starting sombre, ending wild. Making sure to recall the funny stuff as well as the tragic bits. The anger and the pure silliness.

It becomes habitual, ritualistic. Something we remember when the anniversaries roll around. Something to keep in mind whenever we get the unwelcome phone call with the news.

That was the early impulse of Flights – a kind of tribute not just to all the friends who have died, but also to the friends that have gathered in their wake, who look out for each other, look after each other and remember to get in touch when the bad news spreads.

But the more I wrote, the more I realised that the story was not just about personal tragedy, but was also about the economic context in which these tragedies take place. As much as my characters’ lives were stalled by their friend’s death when they were teenagers, they they were equally paralysed in adulthood by the global recession; they made cautious choices, enforced by a lack of opportunities in front of them. And instinctively they learned that their lives were only useful insofar as they were put to work.

This is a punishing and limiting way to live, to be victims of an economy you are obliged to serve. Your creativity, your expression, even your physicality means nothing unless it’s being used to earn and spend money. This ideology produces such a reckless attitude to body and mind, it is no wonder people turn in on themselves, heedless of their safety and capacity, assaulting their physical and mental health while struggling to imagine another way to live.

Conor Madden in rehearsal for Flights by John O’Donovan, 2020 (photo by Ste Murray)

There’s this patronising, anachronistic idea about men, that they don’t know what they’re feeling – that if they just expressed themselves they wouldn’t be so fucked up. But some of the things they feel – rage, weakness, fatigue, apathy – aren’t the kinds of things that people want to hear about. It’s all well and good telling fellas they need to talk, but when there’s no one – trained or otherwise – prepared to listen, many will know it’s easier to keep their mouths shut.

And these feelings are not peculiar: rage, weakness, fatigue and apathy are sensible responses to living under austerity capitalism.

So I don’t think it’s a crisis of masculinity alone; more that there’s a crisis in health services, in housing, in employment and work-life balance – in other words, the same crises that have been devastating Ireland for more than a decade. Young men, like all young people, have been part of a generation disproportionately punished by austerity economics; the idea that their problems would disappear if they weren’t too proud or macho to talk their way out of it is at best naive, and at worst an invidious piece of victim blaming that ignores economic causality and favours individual recrimination over systemic improvement.

To me, Flights is not a play about men not being able to articulate themselves; it’s not filled with brooding, unsaid feelings. Silence is not their problem; if anything they have too many words. It’s not the inability to speak, but the fact that they are speaking to a world that has no interest in listening that’s troubling them. It’s not unsayable truths but unavoidable facts that finally do for them: that not seeing a place for themselves in their country, or in the world, it should come as no surprise that they might want to take themselves out of it.

Flights starts and ends as an act of remembrance: three fellas come together in a world that’s changing around them; old before their time, they’re fading out of their own lives. Consumed with the history of their grief – and bereft of their own potential – they are more adept at remembering the past than they are at seeing clearly what’s happening to them now.

If I could wish anything for them, it is that they never forgive the economics that has left them behind, stewing, with their best days far behind them, lying stalled and stagnating, finished before they ever got started.


The above is an edited version of the author’s note in the playscript of Flights, published by Nick Hern Books in an edition that also includes John O’Donovan’s 2019 play, Sink.

Flights & Sink: Two Plays is out now. To buy your copy for just £8.79 (RRP £10.99) plus postage and packing, visit the Nick Hern Books website now.

Flights was premiered by One Duck Theatre at glór in Ennis, Co. Clare, 15–17 January 2020, and transfers to the Project Arts Centre, Dublin, 21 January–8 February 2020 and Clapham Omnibus Theatre, London, 11–29 February 2020.

Discover the Most-Performed Plays of 2019

What a fantastic year 2019 was for NHB! We were shortlisted for an award at the IPG Independent Publishing Awards; celebrated awards success for loads of our authors including Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Antony Sher, Frances Poet and Lynn Nottage; launched our new series Multiplay Drama (which is up for a prize at the Music and Drama Education Awards), and of course published over one hundred fantastic new plays and theatre books.

We know that you’ve been incredibly busy yourselves, as we licensed thousands of performances of Nick Hern Books plays over 2019! We’ve crunched the number of performances across the year to find out which were your favourites. Let’s take a look and get inspired by our Top 10 Most-Performed Plays of 2019, in reverse order…

10. The Children by Lucy Kirkwood
Cast: 2f 1m

The Children performed by Criterion Theatre, Coventry, England, in January 2019
Photo: Criterion Theatre

New to our Top 10 is Lucy Kirkwood’s pressingly topical tragicomic The Children, following two ageing nuclear scientists in an isolated cottage on the coast, as the world around them crumbles. This beautifully written three-hander was named Best Play at the 2018 Writers’ Guild Awards. ‘Sly, gripping, darkly funny… this is sci-fi kitted out with real people, real dilemmas, real scope’ The Times

Loved this play? Take a look at: Foxfinder

9. Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne, adapted by Laura Eason
Cast: 3f 5m, doubling (very large cast possible)

AROUND THE WORLD, Caldicott School, November 2019, Neale Blackburn

Around The World in 80 Days performed by Caldicott School, Slough, England, in November 2019
Photo: Neale Blackburn

Laura Eason’s celebrated version of Verne’s classic novel packs in more than fifty unforgettable characters. This imaginative adaptation was written for an ensemble cast of eight, but can be performed by a much larger cast – making it perfect for any theatre company or drama group looking for a high-spirited adventure. ‘Bursting with imagination, this exuberant whistle-stop tour through Verne is a trip worth making’ The Stage

Loved this play? Take a look at: The Three Musketeers

8. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, adapted by Steven Canny and John Nicholson
Cast: 3m

HOUND, Stockton Heath Methodist Amateur Drama Society, May 2019

The Hound of the Baskervilles performed by Stockton Heath Methodist Amateur Dramatic Society, Cheshire, England, in May 2019
Photo: Stockton Heath Methodist Amateur Dramatic Society

A gloriously funny makeover of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most celebrated Sherlock Holmes story, from the hit comedy team Peepolykus. The Hound of the Baskervilles is an energetic spoof, offering abundant opportunities for silly comedy and slapstick for three male performers. ‘A masterclass in madcap energy… a fun and fresh Sherlock Holmes romp’ The Stage

Loved this play? Take a look at: Dracula: The Bloody Truth

7. Di and Viv and Rose by Amelia Bullmore
Cast: 3f

Di and Viv and Rose, Questors, June 2019, Carla Evans 01

Di and Viv and Rose performed by The Questors, London, England, in June 2019
Photo: Carla Evans

A firm favourite with amateur companies, this warm and funny play about friendship offers three great roles for female performers. Crackling with wisdom and wit, Di and Viv and Rose is a humorous and thoughtful exploration of a relationship spanning 30 years. ‘Brims over with warm, effervescent humour and sharp perceptiveness’ Independent

Loved this play? Take a look at: Little Gem

6. Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale
Cast: 5-7f 7m

NELL GWYNN, Masquerade Theatre Company, October 2018 01

Nell Gwynn performed by Masquerade Theatre, Kent, England, in October 2018
Photo: Masquerade Theatre

Holding a place in our Top 10 ever since its release, this explosive, extravagant, warm-hearted comedy is an unending delight. Boasting a large cast and a charming lead role for a female performer, Nell Gwynn won the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy. ‘Bawdy and brilliant… a wonderful, warm-hearted and generous piece of theatrical history’ The Stage

Loved this play? Take a look at: Anne Boleyn

5. The Railway Children by E. Nesbit, adapted by Mike Kenny
Cast: 5f 6m, doubling (6f 9m)

The Railway Children performed by Ysgol Bae Baglan, Port Talbot, Wales, in July 2019
Photo: Ysgol Bae Baglan

This story of a prosperous Edwardian family who nearly lose everything captures the anxieties and exhilarations of childhood with great tenderness and insight. Mike Kenny’s imaginative adaptation of the much-loved children’s classic offers three plum roles for young performers, and is eminently suitable for schools, youth theatres and drama groups. ‘This glorious adaptation never for a moment runs out of steam’ Guardian

Loved this play? Take a look at: The Machine Gunners

4. Bull by Mike Bartlett
Cast: 1f 3m

Bull performed by the Woodhouse Players, Leytonstone, England, in March 2019
Photo: Woodhouse Players

Storming on to the list in the first year of its performing rights re-release, Mike Bartlett’s razor-sharp play about office politics and playground bullying has been an instant hit with amateur companies. Witty and unflinching, Olivier Award-winning Bull offers ringside seats as three employees fight to keep their jobs. ‘Short, slick and emotionally unflinching… delivers a decisive punch’ The Stage

Loved this play? Take a look at: Contractions

3. The Thrill of Love by Amanda Whittington
Cast: 4f 1m

The Thrill of Love performed by Anglisten Theater, Augsburg, Germany, in December 2018
Photo: Anglisten Theater

A gripping, female-led drama about Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain. Holding a place in our Top 10 for the fifth year running, The Thrill of Love dramatises an absorbing true story and takes a fresh look at the woman behind the headlines. ‘Tense and engaging throughout… a triumph’ The Stage

Loved this play? Take a look at: Machinal

2. Ladies’ Day by Amanda Whittington
Cast: 4f 1m

Ladies’ Day performed by Hyde Heath Theatre Company, Bucks, England, in June 2019
Photo: Richard Caslon

Amanda Whittington’s fantastic, female-led plays always hold a deserving place in our Top 10. This high-spirited comedy about four likely lasses from the Hull fish docks on a day trip to the races has been a hit with amateur companies for years. With its warm heart, relatable soul and fabulous roles for women, it’s not hard to see why. ‘Exuberantly up-to-the-minute comedy’ Guardian

Loved this play? Take a look at: The Nightingales

1. Blue Stockings by Jessica Swale
Cast: 8-10f 8-14m

Blue Stockings performed by the Department of Drama, NYU/Tisch School of the Arts, New York, USA, in May 2019
Photo: Justin Chauncey

Jessica Swale holds the top spot in our Top 10 list for the third year running. Her moving, comical and eye-opening historical drama Blue Stockings is a defiant story of four young women fighting for education against the backdrop of women’s suffrage. ‘Cracking… leaves you astonished at the prejudices these educational pioneers had to overcome’ Guardian

Loved this play? Take a look at: Emilia

Check out more of our popular titles over on our Most Performed page, rounding up our Top 20 Plays to Perform. From Andrew Bovell’s bold and complex family portrait Things I Know To Be True, co-produced by renowned physical theatre company Frantic Assembly, to the explosive, award-winning teen drama Girls Like That by Evan Placey, to Ella Hickson’s twist on J. M. Barrie’s classic, Wendy & Peter Pan, which puts Wendy firmly centre-stage, we hope that these hit plays will inspire your search for your perfect next play to perform!


Congratulations to all of our wonderful authors who have made it into the Top 10 this year, and to all of you whose performances have been such a success. And thanks to all the companies who provided us with photos of their amazing productions. It’s always a pleasure to help so many of you stage ambitious, accomplished and triumphant productions of the fantastic plays on our list, and we hope to continue to work together for many years to come.

We have over 1,000 plays available for amateur performance on our website, where there’s a handy Play Finder tool to help you find the perfect play to perform. Our friendly and knowledgeable Performing Rights team is available to discuss your requirements with you in person (email us at rights@nickhernbooks.co.uk, or give us a call on 020 8749 4953). And make sure you sign up for our newsletter to get notifications of the latest releases.

Whatever your plans for 2020, we hope to hear from you soon!