February 2019 meeting review

Sussex Playwrights Meeting February 3rd 2019

Simon Jenner’s report:

Tonight after Pippa introduced with updates (more TBC Audio podcasts from Simon Moorhead, more Fringe events including Jenny Rowe’s one-person show, and Judy Upton’s film also with Moorhead), came the single event of the evening. It gave rise to the most extended, animated discussion I’ve seen at SPC, more even than January last year.

This all came about through an extract from Jules Craig’s new play in progress, Requiem for a Ratcatcher’s Daughter, featuring Jenny Rowe and Sian Webber. Jules Craig says she’s often meant to come to SPC, and only lives round the corner. But she’s a striking talent on the Brighton Fringe and farther afield, as writer and actor.

She trained as an actor at Rose Bruford College, and as a voice coach at Central School of Speech and Drama. Recent credits include Marjorie in Sisterhood (Kriah Arts) and Mustardseed/Snout in Midsummer Nights Dream (BSC at BOAT). She teaches Voice at ‘ACT’, Brighton and ‘Identity’ Drama School, London. You can see why, since her own voice is distinctive, inflecting the singular quiddity of her own written characters.

Whilst she’s provided short stories for ‘White Rabbit’, ‘Are You Sitting Comfortably’ (Basement, Brighton), contributions to ‘Brighton, A Graphic Novel’, and ‘Backstage Brighton’ (QueenSpark Books), it’s her one woman show, Edith, Elizabeth and I which Craig wrote, produced, performed, and toured nationally throughout 2016 which put her on the playwriting radar.

This, a subtle, witty exploration between Elizabeth I and the poet who just might have toyed with the idea of being her reincarnation, was memorably, teasingly inhabited by Craig with a flash-through of reversed profiles worthy of some 39 Steps routines. Humour and pathos were struck through.

Tonight in this ‘second-draft’ piece Jenny Rowe played Rebecca, Sian Webber was Eva and Robert Cohen reading directions, for an excerpt early on, in fact the kernel of the play, being written first.

A two-hander at the moment, Requiem for a Ratcatcher’s Daughter explores ingrained loneliness, ulterior matchmaking, and occluded kinship. Briefly, a young woman Rebecca with a lanyard from the Social Services round her neck arrives at an older woman’s house, recently de-trapped by her rat-catcher father.

His report – she has it – appreciates Eva the older woman’s ingenious traps but felt this, combined with rat stews – and what’s that cooking at the moment? – caused complaints.

Particularly when a neighbour’s good mousing cat accidentally tripped one and got a bread knife through the eye: exit cat. ‘Couldn’t use it for the bread after that’ reflected the trap-worded Eva. Craig’s giving Eva the same snappy voice as her own traps is of course a given, but she makes it naturalistic, and a paean to older people and independence.

Er, and that huge thing with a supermarket trolley and everything closed over it hanging suspended. What’s that? ‘Abstract art.’ ‘What’s it called.’ ‘Abstract.’ ‘And that stew?’ ‘Chicken.’ Later ‘Well rats.. taste like… chicken… there’s far less meat or fat on though than you’d think…. and there’s a use for tails…’

Rebecca’s character is in fact far more nuanced. It appears finally she’s only a librarian, hence borrowed library lanyard, and finds both her lonely father and this woman rather like two halves she’d like to bring together because, it seems, she might not be around that much longer.

Eva’s having none of it though, and a Keystone Cops chase ensues as she ushers Rebecca out and instead falls into her own vertical trap, that abstract sculpture called Abstract she’d explained away to Rebecca earlier. Trapped there, all the women can do, Rebecca on the outside, is tell each other stories. Where will it go? Well, there’s unsuspected kinship for one thing. Let’s watch Craig’s space.

Post-Show

The discussion afterwards centred on how it’d develop. Two hander or more? There’s thoughts about the father for instance. Should he be brought in as a character in what might be Act Two? After all of it Jules is keeping her options open. Yes for this part it’s sensible to revert to first names.

The overall impression of Jules’ work was immensely positive. Theatrical, funny, with parts tailored to the characters, and utterly intriguing. There’s a conspiratorial way one enters another’s screwball plotting, a bit like Lettice and Loveage SJ suggested though in fact it’s a rich work – richer than the rat stew certainly. The extract had us wanting more. Crisp, funny touching, it portends far more emotional territory. It had started as black comedy but its reach is farther than that.

The cast including Robert all contributed. The contrast between actors and improv, how actors can discuss their play – and say Beckett and Pinter – became dominant.

Sian talked of how these authors were tightly controlling – Pippa and Thomas added detail about authors’ estates. Sian pointed out how Ibsen spent an age drawing character, then three weeks actually writing.

Eddie Alford, whose Breakfast at Dalkey Harbour, Red Roaster was a hit in the Brighton Fringe in May 2013, emerged to tell of the way he hunched defensively when first on a Sussex Creative writing MA in 2010; by the end criticisms were flying over him. So much so that when a priest brother of a corrupt politician upbraided him for a play where two women kiss (this back in Dublin) ‘I’m very disappointed, I’m very disappointed’ Eddie commented: ‘it’s art, you’re quite right to make such a comment’; adding he couldn’t have said that before the course. He commented on the way directors work with an author is similar, though more respectful (if it’s got that far).

Judy Upton agreed, outlining how she was always given a choice when actors came back with modifications: nothing would get past unless she agreed, and she usually did. SJ asked too about the way Churchill worked with devised work-shopping – a theme that emerged tonight – in both Out of Joint for Light Shining in Buckinghamshire where actors brought their own research, Vinegar Tom for Monstrous Regiment, both 1976; and in 1983 Fen. And contrasts with e.g. these days where directors are working solely with the writer, as Lucy Kirkwood suggests when she added in a Royal Court interview for The Children in December 2016 that she tends to really overwrite and her director James Macdonald helps her fine it down.

SJ asked Judy her experience and Judy said she was an under-writer, so all the actors’ suggestions tended to go in and help to build the piece up. Jules herself took this up and said she had the same tendencies herself. But actors’ material really helps.

Eddie also added that of course everything goes now, but writers on the whole – as Pippa, Thomas and Robert said – need a point of letting go – and if actors really can’t work with Beckett and Pinter, well they just leave. Thomas – and was it Pippa? -suggested that you need to let the written character be what the writer thinks they are. In other words the actors has no agency in determining that written character is different just because their own subjective reading of it makes it so. If you don’t like it, you don’t do it. Robert felt the actor and writer tended to gel at an earlier stage and this conflict was minimal.

This led to a discussion of the traditional ‘my character would never say that’ with Judy suggesting an attentive listening by both actor and writer, directors usually good at this. Sian added a fine dramaturg usually sorted things out.

There was agreement that though money came into it if you really disliked a text you’d leave. Those who accepted Beckett and Pinter with their controlling estates, accepted the rules. For the rest as Judy SJ and Eddie said with Jules, we should be so lucky actors add to and inhabit their character. Judy said her completed work usually incorporated actors’ material.

Eddie reverted to the devised theatre, suggesting Abigail’s Party, recently starting a revival tour at Theatre Royal, was a perfect example of how Leigh brought together the original devised material of built-up character. Then Leigh wrote from that as Sian, Pippa and Thomas thought. SJ wondered who brought in Dennis Roussos. But added this was another mid-late 1970s piece like the Churchills, and Eddie agreed. We see less of it now though it still occurs.

SJ at the end asked two brief questions of Jules. How long would the play last – about 60-75 minutes till Tuesday last made her think, Jules suggested. And what about those wonderfully impossible traps? Jules wasn’t sure but said this time she hoped a producer would take care of that, she’d not be producing this piece herself. Either that or re-think the piece in terms of viable props. Personally I hope Jules keeps her traps, as it were open and shut, and at least gestured to.

Jules was very happy with the response and discussion her piece generated – as were we all. This is a partially recalled account of an absorbing new play, with genuine theatrical possibilities, and discussion. But I hope does the evening some justice.