Ladies Unleashed: Playwright Amanda Whittington on her Ladies Trilogy

Business portraits Marsden HuddersfieldWhen Amanda Whittington’s play Ladies’ Day premiered at Hull Truck Theatre in 2005, it introduced the world to Pearl, Jan, Shelley and Linda – four likely lasses from the Hull fish docks on a day at the races. The play and its sequel, Ladies Down Under, have since been performed around the world, including thousands of performances by amateur and community theatre groups. Now there’s a third play in the sequence, Ladies Unleashed, just premiered at Hull Truck, which brings the story of the Ladies bang up to date. Here, the playwright reflects on the enduring popularity of her beloved Ladies, and why amateur performances of her work are so important to her…

It’s hard to believe it’s almost twenty years since Hull Truck asked me to write Ladies’ Day, a play inspired by Royal Ascot coming to York Racecourse for one year only. It was a huge event in the Yorkshire calendar and a pretty big deal for me, too. A youngish playwright, it was my first commission for a company I’d long admired.

Ladies’ Day opened in June 2005 and ran for three weeks to full houses. I was knocked out by the response but had no expectation it had a future beyond its first production. It was written for a specific place and time; that was part of its success, or so I thought. The characters had other ideas.

The play dramatises a day at the races with four friends who work side-by-side at a Hull fish plant. Swapping overalls for Sunday best, Pearl, Jan, Shelley and Linda set out for Royal Ascot and get lucky on the Tote. But what Ladies’ Day is truly about is friendship, relationships, hopes, dreams and disappointments. They’re ordinary women in the best sense of the word.

Hull Truck Ladies' Day

Hull Truck production of Ladies’ Day by Amanda Whittington, 2005 (Photograph by Adrian Gatie)

A year later, Hull Truck took Ladies’ Day on a UK tour. I’d hoped the Ladies would be recognisable to a Hull audience but we soon found they were just as relatable across the country. There was also a growing curiosity about the next chapter. The end of Ladies’ Day – a big win for the workmates on the horses – felt like a new beginning.

Ladies Down Under caught up with the gang a couple of years after the win. I hadn’t conceived the story as a sequel, but it was wonderful to write in response to the impact the Ladies had made. The much-loved Hull Truck cast reprised their roles on a once-in-a-lifetime tour of Australia, which soon becomes a metaphorical journey of discovery.

Ladies Down Under

Hull Truck production of Ladies Down Under by Amanda Whittington, 2007 (Photograph by Louise Buckby)

In 2008, Ladies Down Under returned from a UK tour to join the final season at Hull Truck’s legendary Spring Street theatre. It felt like a fitting end to our four-year run. I imagined the characters would forever stay in that magical bubble of time. Not quite. Nick Hern Books had published Ladies’ Day and Ladies Down Under, and pretty soon, new productions were springing up in villages and towns across the country.

Ladies' Day Wolverhampton Grand

Wolverhampton Grand production of Ladies’ Day by Amanda Whittington, 2018 (Photograph by Graeme Braidwood)

As a playwright, you learn to let go of your stories. At the end of a run, there’s no guarantee you’ll see your characters again. Yet thanks to amateur and community theatre, these ladies – and the gents in their world – are very much alive. Pearl, Jan, Shelley and Linda have been played by hundreds of actors in thousands of performances.

Words can’t express how grateful I am to each and every company that programmes my work. I read every licence that comes in, and note all the villages, towns and cities the Ladies are heading to next. I love to hear from you, see your photos and answer your questions on the plays. It’s always a joy to meet you and and talk Ladies. By programming new work, the amateur sector not only keeps plays alive but sustains careers. Every ticket sold in a local theatre, church hall or school is an investment in a writer’s future work, as well as our past

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Four out of the thousands of amateur productions of Amanda Whittington’s Ladies plays. Clockwise from top left: Hyde Heath Theatre Company; Tanat Theatre Club; Dudley Little Theatre; Nantwich Players

Which brings us to Ladies Unleashed.

I’d made up my mind not to do it. The first Ladies play achieved more than I’d dared hope. The sequel came hot on its heels. Fifteen years passed, but a question kept popping up from actors, producers and audiences: ‘When are you writing a third?’

It was a great compliment, but I really wasn’t sure. I think I was torn between love and fear: your love for the characters, and my fear of failure. Yet I was curious too, and self-doubt is a voice writers know very well. We learn to live with it, channel it and, ultimately, fly in the face of it. Which I finally did in 2018, onstage at Nick Hern Books’ Amateur Theatre Fest, announcing the trilogy so then, I couldn’t not do it.

At the same time, I was talking to Artistic Director Mark Babych about a new play for Hull Truck. We had various ideas but the conversation kept coming back to the Ladies. Mark loved the characters and was interested in the idea of ‘where are they now?’ In 2019, I wrote a first draft set in the present day on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, Northumberland. Then along came Covid. We all know that story. When theatres reopened and I returned to the play – now programmed for Hull Truck’s 50th-Anniversary season – the world had changed, so I started afresh.

Ladies Unleashed is the third in a trilogy but, like the first, it stands alone as a play for today. I didn’t want to repeat whatever formula there might be in the first two. Pearl, Jan, Linda and Shelley are a generation older, and so am I; the 30-something writer of Ladies’ Day wouldn’t and couldn’t have written this play. I set out to push the boundaries the first two plays had set. Yet in draft after draft, the characters came back so strongly, I knew they’d never quite left. It’s like meeting old friends. I do hope you’ll feel the same.

Gemma Oaten in Ladies Unleashed

Gemma Oaten (foreground) and Fenella Norman, Sara Beharrell and Allison Saxton (background) in the Hull Truck production of Ladies Unleashed by Amanda Whittington, 2022 (Photograph by Ian Hodgson)

To mark the publication of the trilogy, I’ve set up a Facebook group for companies producing the Ladies plays. Share your thoughts, questions, photos, dilemmas and discoveries with us on Ladies’ Day, Down Under & Unleashed. I look forward to seeing you there!


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Amanda Whittington’s play Ladies Unleashed is out now, published by Nick Hern Books. To buy a copy of the playscript with a 20% discount (£10.99 £8.79 plus p&p), visit our website.

The playscript is also available as part of an exclusive three-book bundle deal: buy all three plays in the Ladies TrilogyLadies’ Day, Ladies Down Under and Ladies Unleashed – at a time-limited discount: £32.97 £24 plus p&p. Only available on our website here.

Amateur performing rights are now available for all three plays. For more information, visit the relevant page on our Plays to Perform site: Ladies’ Day, Ladies Down Under or Ladies Unleashed. It’s important that you apply for performing requests before any commitment is made.

Author photo by Elizabeth Baker Photography

In dark times: Two Ukrainian playwrights on life in the midst of the conflict

It has been six months now since Russia invaded Ukraine, but as a double-bill of Ukrainian plays – published this week and currently showing at the Finborough Theatre in London – makes clear, the conflict really began much earlier than that, when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014. For the two leading Ukrainian playwrights whose work is being staged, and who both still live and work in Ukraine, the war there is as devastating as it was foreseeable. Here, Natal’ya Vorozhbit and Neda Nezhdana (together with their translators, Sasha Dugdale and John Farndon) write about the anger, dismay and horror that has fed into their work, as well as the extraordinary human resilience in the face of outrageous Russian aggression.

Vorozhbit, Natalya_Cropped

Natal’ya Vorozhbit writes: ‘When I wrote Take the Rubbish Out, Sasha in 2014, the war in Ukraine had already begun. It continued in the east of the country, and it was impossible to believe. I tried to wear this war, as did my family; I wrote about my fears and premonitions and hoped that they would never come true, that humanity would be horrified and stop the war at that stage. But humanity pretended that nothing was happening and bought gas from Russia. Eight years have passed and everything that I described in the play, only much worse, has happened to the whole of Ukraine, hit all of us and touched all of you.

For eight years, neither Ukraine nor the world has coped with the evil that came without hiding. It really hurts me that this text is only now so relevant. Can it change anything? It seems that art does not become a warning and does not change the world at all. And only the human ability not to lose hope moves us further, makes us write, fight, and believe that good and truth will win.’

Take The Rubbish Out, Sasha. Amanda Ryan and Alan Cox Credit Charles Flint 2

Amanda Ryan and Alan Cox in Take the Rubbish Out, Sasha by Natal’ya Vorozhbit at the Finborough Theatre, 2022 (Photograph by Charles Flint)


Dugdale, SashaSasha Dugdale writes: ‘I translated Take the Rubbish Out, Sasha in late 2014 for A Play, A Pie and A Pint at Òran Mór in Glasgow, directed by Nicola McCartney. The war in Donbas had begun earlier that same year, so by the time Natalka wrote her short play the initial shock of war and invasion had worn off. In her lithe, funny and poignant work, Natalka looks back to the Soviet period, and the confusion of the nineties, and shows how ideas of masculinity have shifted over a period of turbulent change. With her “sly writer’s heart” (a phrase she uses in her 2017 classic Bad Roads) and her abundant compassion and humour, she depicts a family operating under all sorts of strains: the burden of alcoholism, divorce, poor health, death, financial constraints, and the various toxins of a corrupt and venal late- or post-Soviet military system.

It is a surprise when war interrupts this mess of ordinary lives and their tensions – as much a surprise to the viewer as it appears to be for the characters. They are wrenched backwards into a time when masculinity counted for something – and yet paradoxically it is women now managing, holding the fort, buying the supplies: the men turn out to be absent, shadowy or supernatural.

I have translated Natalka’s work for many years and it has been a privilege and a responsibility. Over the period of our collaboration she has documented the emerging Ukraine and its process of self-definition, through protest and uprising, into the woeful period of Russian aggression which has dominated Ukraine’s recent history. I love and relish her deft, wry dialogue and its humour, and the power female protagonists have in her writing. Most of all I love her joy in humanity, in all its forms, and I take this into my translating, often laughing aloud at her sheer cleverness and wit as I strive to find English equivalents.’

Take The Rubbish Out, Sasha. Issy Knowles and Amanda Ryan Credit Charles Flint 2

Issy Knowles and Amanda Ryan in Take the Rubbish Out, Sasha by Natal’ya Vorozhbit at the Finborough Theatre, 2022 (Photograph by Charles Flint)


Nezhdana, Neda_croppedNeda Nezhdana writes: ‘Since the Revolution of Dignity, I have “mobilised” my “literary soldiers”; all my texts have been related to the Maidan and the war. At the beginning of 2014, my native city of Kramatorsk in Donetsk region was occupied by Rashists (Russian fascists) for several months. My relatives managed to escape, and I wanted to write a play about it: what it is like to become a refugee. They had had their whole world stolen from them: home, work, friends, city… And the total lies of Russian propaganda – about the Maidan, Donbas, Ukraine in general – were outrageous. Nothing to do with reality. On the contrary, they called the Maidan’s international goal of association with the EU “Nazism”, and described their own aggression, terror and looting as “liberation”. Time has shown that their hybrid occupation brought only grief: tens of thousands killed, wounded, orphaned, millions of refugees, destroyed houses and destinies… And people, provoked by propaganda, became murderers, executioners and traitors…

I searched for a long time to find the right form for my play, Pussycat in Memory of Darkness. The impetus was the true story of Iryna Dovgan, a beauty-salon worker who was captured and tortured by the Russians. Her words suggested the title of the play: she saw “darkness” in the eyes of her executioner. This is what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to warn the world about this “darkness” – the impunity of criminals turning into a “tsunami” that can engulf all of us in a terrible nightmare of terror… Yet “in dark times, bright people are clearly visible,” as Erich Maria Remarque wrote. The second impetus for the play was photos of our retreating soldiers rescuing dogs, cats and parrots. Animals, whose owners had been killed or captured, sensed where they would be helped, and went to Ukrainian soldiers. I believe that humanity begins with our attitude towards animals. This is how the eventual image of a volunteer heroine who helps soldiers and saves kittens was born. White, grey and black are the three steps in the war of light and dark… Documentary stories from relatives and friends, my own memories and news, such as the shooting down of a passenger plane by the Russians in Donbas, were intertwined with fantasy. It was a cry for help: people, stop this horror before it’s too late… But millions of crimes in the Russian Federation remain unpunished, and unpunished evil is growing progressively.

Pussycat In Memory Of Darkness. Kristin Milward Credit Charles Flint 4

Kristin Milward in Pussycat In Memory of Darkness by Neda Nezhdana at the Finborough Theatre, 2022 (Photograph by Charles Flint)

Since 24th February 2022, this “darkness” has spread over the whole of Ukraine. When I wrote this play, I didn’t know, like my character, how it was to be with children and animals under fire from rockets and bombs, what it meant to be a refugee. But now I know this from my own experience in the Kyiv region, and my relatives in Kramatorsk live next to the train station that was hit by Russian rockets on 8th April… Tens of millions of people are going through this now, dozens of countries around the world are helping displaced people and the wounded from Ukraine. More than two-thirds of Ukrainian children are refugees, others are under fire, in infiltration camps, deported, wounded, killed… Now refugees are a problem for the whole world. Rashists destroy entire cities and villages, especially schools, hospitals, museums, theatres, churches, burn books… And they also “denazify” animals: horses are burned in stables and cows are blasted by “hail”… They even attack plants – mining forests and burning grain fields… This is not only the most terrible war in terms of weapons, it is genocide, the attack of barbarism on civilisation, slavery on freedom. It is important to understand: leaving the occupied territories of Ukraine to the Russian Federation means condemning people to death and torture. Unfortunately, this play has only grown in relevance. I believe that such texts help those traumatised by the war and those who want to understand what is really happening. All over the Earth, which is becoming absorbed by the “darkness”. However, I remain in Ukraine and continue to write, because I believe in the victory of light. Thanks to all “warriors of light” in the world.’


Farndon, John_cropJohn Farndon writes: ‘The ongoing Russian attack on Ukraine is a horror which no one can ignore. What can theatremakers do? The very painful answer is not much. But since the beginning of March 2022, I’ve been working with the Worldwide Ukrainian Play Readings project, in collaboration with Theatre of Playwrights in Kyiv, to bring the words of Ukraine’s amazing and courageous playwrights to the world by translating dozens of their plays, many written almost from the frontline – raw, immediate and powerful.

For me, the most extraordinary discovery has been the writing of Neda Nezhdana, and it’s been a privilege to translate her work. She is something of a legend in Ukraine yet her work has never been staged in English until now. It should have been. Neda has an extraordinary ability to distil the most challenging aspects of Ukraine’s situation into bold, provocative, thrilling drama.

Pussycat in Memory of Darkness is set in 2014, when Russia occupied Crimea and began its ongoing attempts to destabilise the Donbas, in revenge for Ukraine’s Maidan revolution to rid the country of Russian influence. It tells the story of the nightmare life that develops for one woman in the Donbas in the face of the insidious violence stirred up in her home town by the Russian-backed militia and propaganda. It is a beautifully crafted, yet uncompromising drama that takes us right into the heart of darkness that is Russia’s war on Ukraine. Yet the message is not just about Ukraine, but for us all.’

Pussycat In Memory Of Darkness. Kristin Milward Credit Charles Flint 3

Kristin Milward in Pussycat In Memory of Darkness by Neda Nezhdana at the Finborough Theatre, 2022 (Photograph by Charles Flint)


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This is an edited version of the introduction to Voices from Ukraine: Two Plays published by Nick Hern Books. Save 20% on your copy when you order direct from the Nick Hern Books website here. 10% of the proceeds from sales of the book will be donated to the Voices of Children Charitable Foundation, a Ukrainian charity providing urgently needed psychological and psychosocial support to children affected by the war in Ukraine.

The plays Take the Rubbish Out, Sasha and Pussycat in Memory of Darkness are in production at the Finborough Theatre, London, until 3 September. For more information, and to book tickets, visit the Finborough Theatre website.

Three plays, one cast, all at the same time: Chris Bush on her ambitious dramatic triptych Rock / Paper / Scissors

Bush, Chris for blogFor the fiftieth anniversary of the Crucible, Sheffield Theatres commissioned playwright Chris Bush to write three plays that could be performed by the same cast, simultaneously, in all three of their spaces (the Crucible, the Lyceum, and the Studio). Nothing quite like it had ever been attempted before. As the resulting plays Rock / Paper / Scissors are premiered in Sheffield, Chris explains how the idea came about…

This is a very silly idea.

We first started dreaming up these shows in February 2021. Directors Rob Hastie and Anthony Lau, designer Ben Stones and myself were making The Band Plays On at the Crucible and going slightly insane through the pressures of creating work during a global pandemic, trying to imagine a brighter future while struggling to navigate the strange new realities of the day to day. The fiftieth anniversary of the Crucible was coming up in November, and who knew how we were going to mark it, or even if the theatre would be open at all by then? While I went home to work on rewrites and do deep dives into lesser known Sheffield Britpop acts, the directors were putting together funding applications and drawing up bold new seasons with a combination of blind hope and bloody-mindedness that all theatre professionals know only too well.

One morning, Rob met me outside my digs to walk with me to the theatre. He had an idea. What if we threw caution to the wind and thought big – even bigger than usual? What if we tried to do something never attempted before – something that could more or less only be done here, within a complex of three world-class stages all only a few metres from each other? What if we took over every inch of Sheffield Theatres with three brand-new standalone shows with a shared a cast, playing simultaneously in the Crucible, Lyceum, and Crucible Studio? Alan Ayckbourn’s House and Garden had done the same thing with two plays, but no one had ever tried it with three (arguably for good reason). The concept was absurd. Would we even be open in a year’s time? What was the story? How do you even begin to plan something like this? I had no idea. Of course I said yes immediately.

Denise Black in Rock

Denise Black in Rock by Chris Bush at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 2022 (Photograph by Johan Persson)

We started kicking ideas around straight away. What was the hook, beside the sheer audacity of attempting it? What if each show had a distinct genre – one farce, one murder mystery, one musical, all linked by the same set of characters? What if we showed the same character at different points in their life?

A christening, a wedding, a funeral (Birth, Marriage and Death as your three titles)? Time travel was definitely discussed at one point. Then for a while we settled on the idea of two weddings, one in the Crucible, one in the Lyceum, and the caterers in the studio (working titles of Bride, Groom and Cake). What if two childhood sweethearts were now getting married on the same day to different people, next door to each other, and hilarity ensued? This concept evolved into one real wedding in the Crucible, and a local am-dram production of a wedding-themed musical in the Lyceum, with all the potential for mistaken identities that might entail. I even came up with the fake show-within-a-show, Wits ’n’ Weddings, a 1980s mega-flop based on the works of Philip Larkin with a book by a young Richard Curtis… alas, it was not to be.

As fun as some of these ideas were, I was never quite sure why we wanted to tell any of these stories, beyond the technical challenge they presented. We all agreed some kind of ‘farce engine’ felt useful, but then a lot of the comedy in farce comes from the audience knowing more than the characters onstage – this is difficult when any given audience might only be getting a third of the overall story at any given time, and these shows needed to be entirely self-contained, as well as forming part of a greater whole. We were all enjoying ourselves, but I felt like I needed to go back to the dramaturgical drawing board.

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Paper by Chris Bush at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, 2022 (Photograph by Johan Persson)

What makes good drama?

All drama fundamentally revolves around conflict. All stories are about a hero (protagonist) who wants something (a goal) but there’s something or someone (an obstacle) in their way. Sometimes that obstacle is physical, or psychological, or elemental, but often it takes the form of an antagonist – a villain – a character whose dramatic function is to stop our hero from getting what they want. This might be because the antagonist despises the hero, and wishes them to suffer, but equally it could just be because they have goals of their own, and those goals are incompatible. The crucial takeaway is this: we are all protagonists in our own stories, but we could very easily be antagonists in someone else’s, whether we’re trying to be or not.

‘Main Character Syndrome’ is a contemporary term for a timeless condition. It describes someone who believes that they are the centre of the universe, and anyone else is of little or no significance. It’s a twenty-first-century form of solipsism, and something we can all be guilty of. Three standalone plays with a shared company – three distinct viewpoints on a common event – is the theatrical antidote to this. Each play would have its own protagonist(s), but said protagonist might become a primary or secondary antagonist when they step off one stage and onto another. It doesn’t mean any of these people are monsters, they just want different things. Theatre, at its best, is a machine for generating empathy – it can transport us to strange and unfamiliar worlds and populate them with characters we’ll come to care deeply for, and learn to understand, despite the fact that they might appear to be nothing like us. This simultaneous-trilogy structure offers a unique opportunity for further experiments in empathy: we can watch villains become heroes and vice versa when we watch the same events from a different angle. Our sympathies may shift entirely depending on what order we watch the shows in. A traditional ‘hero’s journey’ three-act saga can often get a bit black-and-white in terms of its morality, in part due to the necessary primacy it places on the hero’s perspective – here we can gently remind an audience, through the theatrical form, that life is messy and complicated and we rarely have the full picture.

Scissors

Scissors by Chris Bush at the Studio Theatre, Sheffield, 2022 (Photograph by Johan Persson)

However, I still didn’t know what the plays were about. I wanted to write about intergenerational conflict, and how each generation might have a legitimate reason to feel uniquely hard done by. The next trilogy concept was Work, Rest and Play – a young generation of school-leavers facing an uncertain future, their parents representing the squeezed middle, and their grandparents in retirement. Was this a family saga of three spaces within the same house? The granny annex, the grown-up dinner party downstairs, the teenagers getting high in the garage? What event would throw them all into crisis? ‘No one wants to see a play called Work,’ said Rob Hastie. And a play called Play felt a little sub-Beckett. Fair enough. Keep thinking. What about a properly Sheffield trilogy, using local placenames as generational markers? Intake (the youth), Halfway (middle-aged), and Endcliffe (for the OAPs)? Was that a bit niche? Furthermore, I felt like we’d explored intergenerational family dynamics in the domestic realm quite thoroughly in Standing at the Sky’s Edge, so maybe this should move into the world of work. At this fiftieth anniversary moment of reflection, it was a chance to think about what cities are for, what civic/public spaces are for, who owns our heritage, who owns our future? Where have we come from and how does that inform where we’re going?

For all this intellectualising, we also just brainstormed a lot of three-part lists. What words went together and did any of them mean anything? How about…

Hop, Skip, Jump
Stop, Look, Listen
Ready, Set, Go
Red, Yellow, Green
Faith, Hope, Charity
(the National Theatre got there first)
Snap, Crackle, Pop
(almost definitely trademarked)

Then, on 3 September 2021, with time rapidly running out and a season announcement due very soon, Rob and I had the following exchange over WhatsApp (edited only for clarity).

Chris Bush, 17:29
‘I feel like Rock, Paper, Scissors could be a good name for something (and hints at three competing forces of equal strength) but I don’t know what they mean by themselves.’

Chris Bush, 17:30
Scissors = stainless steel, Sheffield history etc etc, Paper = office work? Or press? Rock = rock music? Teenage rebellion? Dunno…’

Rob Hastie, 17.31
‘Oo that’s quite fun’

Chris Bush, 17:37
‘Could be something in whatever they’re competing over – an inherited building, for instance – could it stay testament to industrial heritage (scissors), become a cool music venue (rock), or just bland but commercially lucrative office space (paper)?

Rob Hastie, 17:44
‘Oh that’s VERY good’

Chris Bush, 17:46
‘I wonder if then (another rethink) do we want our stages to all be different parts of the same building/complex – the factory floor, the old manager’s office, the break room or something? And lean into that idea of everyone milling around the same space in real time?’

And that was that. Of course this was still only the sketchiest of ideas, but in just over fifteen minutes something had crystalised. It now felt like we had the bones of a story (or multiple stories) worth telling. Something that spoke to intergenerational conflict, about heritage, about legacy, about autonomy, and how much any of us are in control of our destiny at any given time. What has been done here, and how does that inform what we should do next? How can we work together when no one really has enough? No heroes, no villains, just a group of people trying to survive in difficult circumstances. An exercise in empathy – which is, after all, the best reason to make theatre in the first place.

This is an edited version of Chris Bush’s introduction to Rock / Paper / Scissors published by Nick Hern Books. Save 20% on your copy when you order direct from the Nick Hern Books website here.

The plays are in production at Sheffield Theatres until 2 July. For more information, and to book tickets, visit the Sheffield Theatres website.