‘Reaching out for life in a new country’: Winsome Pinnock on her play Leave Taking

Winsome Pinnock’s play Leave Taking, about a Caribbean family living in North London, is as powerful today as it was when it was first performed in 1987. As a major new production opens at the Bush Theatre in London, the author reveals how she came to write it, and how it was inspired by her own family story…

I hadn’t read Leave Taking for several years when Madani Younis, Artistic Director of the Bush Theatre, told me that he wanted to revive the play as part of the theatre’s 2018 season. He said that he and the Bush’s creative team considered the play a classic in the canon of work by black British playwrights and that they felt that it remained relevant: Enid’s predicament – the plight of many immigrants regardless of where they come from, caught between worlds – reaching out for life in a new country, haunted by memories of what she has left behind.

On the first day of rehearsals at the Bush I was asked to talk to the cast about how I came to write the play, the first full-length play I had ever written. I found it difficult to answer the question. Engaging with the text again had put me in conversation with my younger self, who I felt was a presence in the rehearsal room. I wished that she could answer for me.

Seraphina Beh in rehearsals for Leave Taking at the Bush Theatre, 2018 (photo © Helen Murray)

I developed a passion for theatre and performance as a child of around twelve years old when, with generous grants from the GLC (Greater London Council), our school took us on visits to the theatre. I wouldn’t have gone otherwise. There wasn’t enough money in our household to afford such trips and there wasn’t enough time either. The interest was awoken, and, along with my younger sister, I became part of a group of young people who became regular theatregoers. We were given the resources (by our school, youth theatres and drama clubs) to dance, act and write. My mother offered quiet encouragement. When I doubted myself, she reminded me that success was usually a matter of holding on, of seeing things through to the end. When I expressed a desire to play the piano I came home from school one day to discover that she had purchased a piano so old it had a few missing keys, but it was functional. She found me a teacher: Miss Wright who lived off the Holloway Road and taught local kids to play at 15p a lesson. My mother and siblings listened tirelessly to the stories I wrote as a child; I was the acknowledged writer of the family.

My mother migrated from Jamaica to the United Kingdom in 1959, following her husband-to-be who, like Enid’s spouse in Leave Taking, saved his salary for a whole year before he was able to afford the money to buy a ticket for her passage over. The shock and disappointment of those who migrated to the UK at that time is well documented. My parents’ generation had been indoctrinated by a colonialist education that lionised all things British. They celebrated Empire Day (24th May) when their schools distributed British flags and lollipops. Despite their disappointment on entering a country whose environment was often hostile (‘No blacks, no dogs, no Irish!’), they didn’t complain and rarely discussed the hardships. After all, they had grown up on plantation villages where the legacy of enslavement was still evident in the wretched poverty they endured. Jamaica achieved independence the year that my youngest sibling was born. My parents’ marriage disintegrated a few years later, and my mother became a single parent to four young children at a time when there was still stigma attached to divorce.

Sarah Niles and Wil Johnson in rehearsals for Leave Taking at the Bush Theatre, 2018 (photo © Helen Murray)

Writers are given their preoccupations at birth. I am the descendant of enslaved Africans who were forcibly denied the right to the written word, or to express themselves through art or song and yet held on to aspects of their African heritage in both. Traces of African spiritual rituals were preserved by clandestine practices like obeah, which was made illegal in Jamaica in 1898, a law that remains on the statute books. Despite its illegality, my mother and some of her peers retained an interest in obeah, consulting obeah men and women in times of crisis for advice and healing.

As a schoolgirl I thought I was going to be an actress. I idolised Glenda Jackson and longed to follow in her footsteps. When I left school, the headmistress predicted that I had a future in the industry. At university I was told that, although I was considered a talented actress, I probably wouldn’t be cast in many productions because I was black. I focused on my writing. I had started writing a play (a sketch really) about two girls getting ready to go out but never managing to leave their bedroom. I sent it to the Royal Court Young Writers’ Group and was invited to join. It was there that I wrote Leave Taking, my first full-length play, when I was twenty-three years old. I wanted to make Enid the heroine of the play because I couldn’t recall ever seeing such a character – a hospital cleaner – as the lead in a British play. I specifically wanted to write about the black British experience as distinct from African American culture because producers often seemed to think that they are interchangeable. I submitted the play to the Royal Court’s literary department who sent me an encouraging rejection letter.

I knuckled down to write another play – A Hero’s Welcome – which received a rehearsed reading at the Royal Court. As a result of the reading I was commissioned by the Liverpool Playhouse Studio and dusted off Leave Taking, restructuring and rewriting to their financial requirements – the budget would only allow for five characters and two sets, so I cut characters and locations. This meant that I could focus more on Enid’s relationship with her daughters, Del and Viv. I was a young feminist. At consciousness-raising groups the mantra ‘the personal is political’ was drummed into me. Similarly, at the Royal Court Young Writers’ Group we were encouraged by workshop leaders Hanif Kureishi and Stephen Wakelam to ‘write what you know’. I now understand that you write what you come to know. Writing is an exploration, the pursuit of the answer to an unanswerable question. I started out wanting to write about the daughters – this new breed of black British woman – but ended up fascinated by Enid and the complexity of her relationship with England, her daughters, and herself, as well as her long-standing friendship with Brod whom she has known since childhood. Brod and Enid have travelled a great distance, both physically and psychologically. They would not have survived without each other. Mai is an enigmatic figure, especially for Viv and Del who have no direct connection with the culture she represents, but she comes to have a powerful influence on all of them.

Adjoa Andoh and Seraphina Beh in rehearsals for Leave Taking at the Bush Theatre, 2018 (photo © Helen Murray)

Leave Taking has been produced four times (the 2018 Bush production will be its fifth production) since 1987. Years after the play was produced at the National Theatre (1994) I was told that it was the first play written by a black British woman to have been produced there. I also learned that it was the first time that a black woman writer and director (Paulette Randall) had worked together at the venue. After the first performances of the play at the Liverpool Playhouse Studio women from different cultural backgrounds collared me to say: ‘That’s my story. I’m Enid’ or ‘That’s my mam. She’s just like Enid.’

The young woman who wrote Leave Taking had no idea that a generation who were very young children or who hadn’t been born when it was first produced would feel that the play still speaks to their experience. I hope it will connect with new audiences in the same way. Some of the speeches feel as though they were written recently: Brod’s words about having to seek naturalisation after thinking of himself as a British citizen for his whole life echo words spoken thirty years later by victims of the 2018 Windrush scandal (a misnomer considering it involves immigrants from diverse backgrounds and not just the Caribbean).

When I was a child my mother told me that she thought that I might have a gift for clairvoyance. I understand now that she had always instinctively known that I was a writer. It’s not that writers are necromancers, but when I read the play I raise again the spirits of those characters. I hear their voices very clearly; I see my younger self consulting with my mother, asking her how you make chocolate tea, and hear her ribbing me all over again about the royalties I owe her or joking that I should credit her as co-writer. I experience again the writing of the scene where Enid breaks down. I know what that feels like now because I have lived through it. I want to ask that young woman if, when she wrote the play, she would ever have imagined that she too would one day howl with grief into a rainy London night after witnessing her mother take her last breath just as Enid howls for a mother she will never hold again.


Reproduced from the new edition of Leave Taking by Winsome Pinnock, published on 24 May 2018 by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy for just £7.99 (20% off the RRP), visit the Nick Hern Books website here.

Leave Taking is revived at the Bush Theatre, London, 24 May – 30 June 2018. To book tickets, visit the Bush Theatre website.

Author photo by Bronwen Sharp.

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Spotlight: MOMENT

Deirdre KinahanDeirdre Kinahan, Irish playwright and Artistic Director of  Tall Tales Theatre company, reveals the inspiration behind her latest acclaimed play currently playing at the Bush Theatre, MOMENT.

I feel I pick up plays from off the street, from the top seat of a bus or from a fragment of newspaper. Plays often present themselves in the furrowed brow, pained complexion or twinkling eye of a passer-by. Plays echo all humanity as I encounter it.

One morning frying eggs I turned on the radio. The voice of a mother echoed out, a mother in extraordinary distress. She told the story of her son. Her son who suffered from depression. Her son who lay in jail. Her son who murdered her daughter.The woman seemed so ordinary, so gentle, so wise. She spoke explicitly about her grief for her daughter and her grief for her son. She spoke for a full hour about the horror of that day, that phone call, that moment that shattered her existence. She spoke with such compassion, with such confusion and with such conflicted emotion that I forgot the eggs and listened. I listened without moving. This woman loved her son. This woman loved her daughter. Yet her son killed her daughter. She spoke for an hour and circled, circled, circled around the heart of her distress, around the murder itself. She could never enter it.

So I thought: how do you deal with that? How do you survive in such acute trauma… how do you survive your love?

I have suffered loss myself. I know the grief of losing a family member and so have some notion of trauma. I know its bizarre state where the world slows down and spins to your tune. I know that it demands extraordinary reserve.

And so I decided to write about trauma. A trauma that shapes you, wounds you and envelops your life. I did some preliminary investigation and then began to reimagine. To reimagine a family and build an afternoon. An afternoon where Mammy goes for a walk, where Niamh and Hilary practise for a talent contest and where Nial commits murder. I reimagine – and I have a play.

Tara Wilkinson, then producer at London’s Bush Theatre came to see the premiere production of MOMENT in Dublin in 2009, and between herself and Artistic Director Josie Rourke, they invited us over. Playing at the Bush means a lot to me, not only because it is an extraordiany theatre but also because it has a long history of supporting and championing Irish writing. The space echoes with story and atmosphere and charm; I felt a palpable energy as soon as I entered that tiny room.

MOMENT jacket

MOMENT by Deirdre Kinahan

I am so pleased that MOMENT has impacted on the Bush audience. Reviews from bloggers, stragglers, twitterers and critics alike have been phenomenal. I feel quite humble. I am served by extraordinary actors, an extraordinary director and enjoy the support of an extraordinary British theatre.

MOMENT plays at the Bush Theatre until 26th March, though tickets are like gold dust. If you can’t get to see it, then buy the playtext here with free P&P (UK customers only). Just quote ‘blog offer’ in the comments field at checkout.

Going Public: What playwrights feel about their reviews

Playwright and tutor Steve Waters explains the power of the review, and offers advice on how to deal with them, whether they’re good or bad.

Steve Waters

As I sat down to write this piece, I was waiting for reviews for two new plays of mine: Amphibians, a project I have developed with Offstage Theatre Company, and Little Platoons, part of the Schools Season at the Bush Theatre. Going public with a new piece of work induces a strange psychotic state in a playwright that I have never got used to – in the breach between opening night and judgement day, it feels like the world is talking behind your back.

jacket image of LITTLE PLATOONS

Little Platoons by Steve Waters

Writerly paranoia of course. But it’s interesting to compare it with having a book published, or indeed working in other media. David Greig has described the impact of a radio play being broadcast as something akin to someone farting in a large room – OK, you might get a nice comment in the Radio Times or some vituperative stuff on an online message board, but by and large life goes on as before. Likewise when my book The Secret Life of Plays came out in the autumn, there was a rash of congratulatory emails and positive reports from friends and relatives, and then a painfully protracted silence before the reviews started to appear.

There are heroic alternatives to running this gauntlet. I admire those who proclaim they never read reviews, as if they have somehow exited from public judgement altogether. I’ve heard some writers say they don’t even read the reviews of other people’s work, which strikes me as going too far – surely a little schadenfreude from time to time is perfectly healthy?

jacket image of THE SECRET LIFE OF PLAYS

The Secret Life of Plays by Steve Waters

I’ve forgotten the innocence of life before notices. What did I do with myself? The odd reference or exam result or school report was all I had to go on. How on earth was I able to evaluate myself? When my first show received a raft of bruising brush-offs I felt I had been mugged in public – the sad, knowing smiles of people around me seemed to confirm my misjudgement of my own worth. The first casualty was my own capacity to believe in reviews myself – having innocently imagined them to be acts of public service, they suddenly looked like collective malice.

I think the poignant delusion behind these anxieties is the hope for justice. Rather like composing your own obituary in advance, there is this naïve craving for a fair trial – no, worse, the laughable need for absolute praise. Being a playwright is not always a sure sign of psychic balance.

The most tortuous aspect of it is the slow release of reviews, like a deadly spread of some toxic gas, undermining your glow of self-belief over a week or two. I have never been addicted to a drug but I imagine it would be akin with the undignified scramble to get online followed by the glum or gleeful hit that ensues. Four stars makes your day, two stars makes you head for Finland.

The proliferation of online reviewing has made this worse not better. More is not merrier – at least with newspaper reviews you know who counts and you know how long they take and you have a vague sense of where they might land. Blogs, websites, and message boards simply demolish your smugness more thoroughly.

Having now been through this on about ten occasions you might hope I could dispense some wisdom. I wish I could. But what follows are merely notes to myself on a good day:

  1. Assume the worst.  As a congenital optimist this is hard work for me. Like Jarvis Cocker I have been composing my own notices for some time and unsurprisingly they tend to the positive.
  2. Dont commit the inductive fallacy. I think Bertrand Russell came up with this term to unpick the logic that because something has happened before, it is likely to happen again. His example is the turkey who blithely assumes he won’t be killed for Christmas since a happy year has passed in the turkey farm and he is so far unscathed – but tomorrow is December 24th. There’s an admixture of rationality and the irrational in the process of being reviewed that must be taken into account. The fact that a critic has been kind in the past is no guarantee of anything – indeed, your luck may have run out. Journalists can’t afford to be predictable, they live and die by their copy.
  3. Don’t take it personally. OK, that was easily writ, but there have been certain reviewers in my career who I always imagined very keenly shooting up their hand in the editorial meeting ahead of my show, hungry to go forth and shaft me. But that way madness lies…because what if the good reviews also stem from some undisclosed personal tie? What if they’re just being nice?
  4. Never respond. Oh God, the hours wasted composing tart and uber-eloquent rejoinders, light as a meringue yet laced with toxins, or the fantasies of Berkoff-style punch-ups next time round. But pause, remind yourself what an arse you will look, and move on.
  5. There is no such thing as neutrality. Everyone has a vested interest in their judgement – your partner to shut you up and pre-empt your insatiable questioning, the actor whose arse is on the line and needs to look on the bright side, the right-wing newspaper with a certain constituency, the left-wing one ditto, the blogger avid for attention. You will never, ever get to the bottom of what you have really done.
  6. Nothing lasts. Yes, damage can be done. But here I am, the survivor of at least two collective maulings. Equally, the presumption that a pat on the back ensures plain sailing thereafter is unsound. Critics are no more nor less than another version of the audience. And as with the audience, even as everyone’s baying with laughter, someone will be looking at their watch; and when everyone’s baying for blood, someone will be smiling wryly to themselves.

Steve Waters’ play Little Platoons opened (with glowing reviews) at the Bush Theatre on 24th January. It is published by Nick Hern Books, as is his book on playwriting – The Secret Life of Plays. To view the full list of NHB titles by this author click here.