‘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!

‘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.

The ordinary made extraordinary: Robert Holman on writing plays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Author photo by Dan Wooller, 2018.

 

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

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

‘Mum, when did you first have sex?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace and love, dudes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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