‘Dare to fashion yourself’: Diane Samuels on her new play Poppy + George

Samuels, Diane3Diane Samuels, author of the powerful modern classic Kindertransport, set out to write a new play about female pirates… and ended up with a beguiling romance about cross-dressing and music hall. Poppy + George, which opened at Watford Palace Theatre this month, is all about identity, she explains – do we let ourselves be shaped by the assumptions of others, or do we choose to fashion ourselves?

Poppy + George, my new play, opened earlier this month at Watford Palace Theatre in a beautiful production with costumes and design by Ruari Murchison and original music by Gwyneth Herbert. It was a wonderful night, with a sense of well-earned satisfaction at the realisation of much hard work and leaps of the imagination, and not a little courage, all the more satisfying because its journey to this moment has turned out to be as unexpected and regenerative as the story of reinvention it tells.

It started in the early 1990s when I was writer-in-residence at Theatre Centre, researching the lives, loves, adventures and misdeeds of women pirates of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. What compelled me most was the significant part their choice of dress played in creating their identity and expressing their ‘free’ lifestyles. This led me to look more closely at ways in which people, women in particular, across the centuries have dressed or been dressed to delineate their roles.

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Poppy + George at Watford Palace Theatre. Photo by Richard Lakos

I found myself, by twists and turns, ending up in 1919, the year after the conclusion of the First World War. This was a time of great change, shifting of national boundaries, loosening of class structures and stirring of gender distinctions – corsets were becoming shorter and less rigid before they started to disappear completely in the 1920s; hems were shortening; and trousers, although still almost exclusively male attire, had been donned here and there, women wearing them while covering men’s jobs during the war years. In the play, Smith – tailor and costumier, born a Jew in Russia and then trained in his craft in the Imperial court in China, in whose workshop in London’s East End the action takes place – asks the young heroine, Poppy, ‘Are you the dummy or the tailor?’ She is affronted and replies, ‘How am I a dummy?’ To which he responds, ‘Either you are fashioned by what you’re told or think you’re told you can be… or you dare to fashion yourself.’

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Photo by Richard Lakos

After running research sessions around the country looking at how we are fashioned and might fashion ourselves – including one in which a 16-year-old boy asked nervously if he might try on a wedding dress and did so with glee and amazement after we closed the doors and drew the curtains – I wrote a one-act play entitled Turncoat. An extensive tour took Smith’s magical workshop, where clothes and identities are created, into a wide range of venues including school halls, community centres and theatres throughout England and Wales.

In 2015, Brigid Larmour, Artistic Director at Watford Palace Theatre, asked if she might read a selection of my plays with a view to producing one. Turncoat leapt out at her as particularly relevant today, even more so than when it had first been written. I was invited to look afresh and write a new full-length play, developed from the earlier version.

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Photo by Richard Lakos

The Palace had started life at the beginning of the twentieth century as a music hall, so I was excited to develop further the theatricality of the piece, adding to the songs, pastiches of music hall ditties, that are sung by the character Tommy Johns, a performer and female impersonator in that hugely popular tradition of ‘dames’ and drag. Underlying his humour is a sense of devastation, for Tommy has returned from a round of duty at the Front during the war, and he is struggling to revive his act and his life in this time of ‘so-called peace’. We meet him at the beginning of the play searching for a name for his latest creation, a maid with “‘er fluffy duster in ‘er ‘and”, encouraged by Smith, who is constructing his costume, and dashing chauffeur George Sampson, who has his uniforms made at the workshop.

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Photo by Richard Lakos

The names people go by are central to the piece, and so I wasn’t surprised when I was asked to find a new title for the play. ‘Poppy + George’ popped into my head immediately. This meant also changing the name of the heroine from Melody to Poppy, a young woman from the north of England who arrives in London with an open, curious mind and a desire to make her way independently in the world. She becomes a seamstress and assistant to Smith and falls in love with George, which leads to her whole world being turned upside down. And so the symbolism of the poppy, with its associations with transformation and dreams (it was not selected as a symbol of memorial for the fallen in the war until 1921, two years after the play is set), has unfolded powerfully throughout the re-writing process, particularly the way the seeds lie dormant in the soil, perhaps even for centuries, and only spring into life and bloom when the earth is churned up and disrupted.

In the few days since the play has opened, it has been heart-warming to receive so many messages of appreciation. One reviewer described it as ‘winningly generous and big-hearted’, with many seeing the modern relevance of this threshold moment nearly a century ago. As Brigid Larmour wrote, ‘Diane has somehow tapped into the zeitgeist debates about gender and identity, in a way that is wonderfully warm and accessible to a wider audience. The music hall element works really well, and is incredibly playful, and the play seems to be leaving people very moved as well as entertained.’


Tamara von WerthernFrom our Performing Rights Manager, Tamara von Werthern…

We’re very excited to have Poppy + George on our list, and it’s sure to be hugely popular with amateur theatre groups. It offers two wonderful, fully-rounded central roles for women, it’s funny, it’s moving and it’s full of charm and atmosphere. Anyone who has enjoyed staging Diane’s brilliant Kindertransport  – or Jessica Swale’s Blue Stockings, or Amanda Whittington’s Be My Baby – should certainly give Poppy + George a twirl.

To register your interest, drop me a line at tamara@nickhernbooks.co.uk, or call me on 020 8749 4953.


FormattedPoppy + George is at Watford Palace Theatre until Saturday 27 February.

The playtext is out now, published by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £7.99 (20% discount) plus p&p, visit the NHB website here.

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Why Publish Plays?

Do plays need to be published in the first place? Publisher Nick Hern looks at the how and the why, and what lies ahead in the age of ebooks.

Publishing plays is an odd activity – and at Nick Hern Books we publish a lot of plays: there are about 900 in print, and we add another 60 or so each year. It’s not glamorous like fiction publishing where you can be the one who actually discovers a brilliant new novelist. Nor is it essential, as it is to most writers, for whom publication is their only means of contacting their readership. A playwright’s chief conduit of communication is – and should be – the theatre. But a play publisher does fulfil a useful function in giving permanent form to an evanescent art, and thereby allowing many more people to have some kind of experience of a play than could ever see it in the theatre.

I’m often asked who actually buys playtexts. First, and most obviously, there is the audience. I have worked hard over the years to persuade theatres who stage new plays to participate in a ‘programme/text’ scheme whereby the text appears in the same volume as the theatre’s programme pages (with cast list, actors’ biographies, programme notes etc.). Anybody who has visited the Royal Court in Sloane Square since 1980, when they first made their appearance, will have been offered one of these ‘programme/texts’. Because of economies of scale and because by delivering direct from the printer to the theatre all the middlemen are cut out, we are able to reduce costs so that a book retailing at £9.99 can be offered to theatre audiences at less than half that amount. It’s a win-win situation. The audience gets a bargain, and the play finds its way into literally thousands more hands than it would if published without such a scheme in place. And this in turn means that producers, directors, actors, and above all teachers from all over the world have access to a play that they might want to make use of later – either in the theatre or in the classroom, or both.

Most of the plays we publish are, perhaps inevitably, premiered in London (though we do work with many touring and regional theatres as well, most regularly the Traverse in Edinburgh) but we need to stay aware that not everybody can get to the one theatre performing such and such a play for a relatively short run. Antony Sher writes in Year of the King (a Nick Hern Book, needless to say) that, growing up in South Africa, he was only able to feel at all in touch with theatre in England thanks to the plays being published.

Year of the King jacket

Year of the King by Antony Sher

It is amazing, looking back over thirty years, that anybody ever discovered what books were published when we had to rely on printed catalogues and the huge, encyclopaedic annual called simply Books in Print. Now, a visit to our website or indeed to Amazon will tell you in a minute – and if you want to stay right up to date, you can even go to our homepage and sign up for our monthly e-newsletter!

Playtexts also have a ready market amongst theatre practitioners, drama teachers and students, and amateur drama groups. Then, if we’re lucky, the play will start to show up on reading lists, set book lists and, when the stars are really in alignment, on exam syllabuses, which is recently the case with Kindertransport, a play we first published when it premiered on the London Fringe in April 1993. More than seventeen years later it’s a prescribed text for GCSE English. If you are a play publisher, you are in for the long haul.

KINDERTRANSPORT jacket

Kindertransport by Diane Samuels

Plays are by no means the whole story. We have an ever-increasing library of theatre books, almost all of which are written by theatre practitioners for theatre practitioners, whether these be professional actors or drama teachers in secondary schools. But plays will probably always be our bread and butter. The first Nick Hern Book was Nicholas Wright’s play, Mrs Klein, which opened at the National Theatre in August 1988 and went on to the West End and Broadway. It was particularly pleasing to see it revived so beautifully at the Almeida just over a year ago. And who knows, maybe that revival came about because the playtext was sitting on somebody’s shelf, attracting the notice of a younger generation. I like to think so.

The first edition of Mrs Klein, and the current one

As for the future, we are always on the look out for outstanding new plays from the professional theatre and for promising ideas for new books from theatre practitioners at every level. And with digital publishing now coming of age, we are about to launch our first ebooks, amongst them Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem and Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park. Will this mean a sea-change in the rehearsal room as actors are required to bring their e-readers to rehearsal? I doubt it. But we know there’s an appetite for digital editions of our plays and theatre books, and not only amongst students.

JERUSALEM jacket

Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth

Meanwhile there’s still a lot to be said for the good, old-fashioned book. It’s a pretty good invention. You can scribble on it, pull it apart, throw it across the room at the director, what you will. You can rely on it. For many people, it’ll take some beating. So for the time being, as well as ebooks, we’ll continue to publish editions you can put on your shelf. And from time to time I remind myself that there are more plays in print today than at any previous moment in history. It’s a comforting thought.

Look out for forthcoming posts on the NHB blog: Bruce Norris on his play Clybourne Park and administering a good punch in the face; Steve Waters on getting over a bad review; plus exclusive advice from winners of the Bruntwood Playwriting Prize. Sign up for RSS now.