‘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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Tamara von Werthern, Performing Rights Manager, Nick Hern Books


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simon Stephens

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Jeffreys, Masterclass

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

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

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

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


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

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

Author photo by Annabel Arden.

Steve Waters on putting Idi Amin on the stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

In Memoriam Peter Nichols

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Edinburgh Fringe Report 2019: Amateur companies lighting up the Fringe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Adam Tomkins, Director


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

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

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

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

KGS Theatre Company flyering at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe

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

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

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

– Stu Crohill, Director


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

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

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

PQA Edinburgh rehearsing Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy

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

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

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

– Leonna McGilligan-Dix, Principal of PQA Edinburgh


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

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

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

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

Our previous Edinburgh Fringe Reports are still available here:

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