Luke Barne’s play Bottleneck took last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival by storm, picking up rave reviews and earning itself a transfer to Soho Theatre. Bottleneck sounds simple enough: “it’s a right of passage play set in Liverpool, about a boy becoming a man”. It centres around a specific event which Barnes can’t revel without ruining the story, but I think his summary sufficiently reflects that he’s a playwright who believes in the purity of honest storytelling.
“If it’s not honest then what’s the point in writing it, if it’s not coming from something you believe in?” asks Barnes. His advice to budding playwrights is simple: “I think being honest is the important thing, and know what excites you. What excites me about theatre is I love the simplicity of it, people saying what they want to say in a way they can say it.” His ‘honesty is the best policy’ attitude reflects the influence of his other discipline, acting, too. However, Barnes tells me that he tries “to separate the two. Acting’s great, I enjoy it – and it’s not that writing’s not unstable work – but with the acting you’re not creating something, you’re just waiting for the phone to ring. I think for me it’s important to have a wide spectrum… when I wrote Bottleneck it was my own thing, I just did it in my own time… Bottleneck was just on my laptop and what happened was they dropped me a line and said there’s a gap in the programme for Edinburgh – it was three days before the deadline. So I sent that over. I was lucky; it came about at the right place at the right time.”
You could say 2012 was Barnes’s breakthrough year with two successful plays at the Edinburgh Fringe (Bottleneck and Chapel Street), yet he remains adamant that everything was “absolute luck, I nearly didn’t win that prize [Chapel Street was produced by Old Vic New Voices for an IdeasTap brief, but was initially turned down], and Bottleneck was last minute… Last year I had nothing planned really until about May when these two things came up; it got me a good set of reviews.” The two plays were not life-changing, but they did open doors: “My first play was on in 2011, it was literally the first thing I’d ever done, nobody had ever heard of me… Now I can talk to people about stuff and that excites me because if I tell somebody about an idea, they may be able to do something about it.”
Hightide not only produced Bottleneck but also commissioned another play, Eisteddfod, for Latitude Festival. “I think they’ve got a good gap in the market because there’s not many companies like them that will take risks on new writing.” And considering the Soho Theatre’s reputation for nurturing and producing new writing, I couldn’t think of a better home for Bottleneck: “Hightide have got a strong relationship with the Soho Theatre anyway because they produced Ella Hickson’s Boys last year. It’s exciting because I did a play there years ago with the National Youth Theatre so it’s good to go back. And they’ve got the best bar.”
What I love about Barnes is his sense of the writer’s role: “I think when it comes to drafting you’ve got to be really conscious that you’re creating something that everyone’s a part of and has invested in emotionally and intellectually to create something we’re proud of altogether. If everyone’s not proud, then it’s a failure in my eyes… What I enjoy about working in theatre is being a part of it in every capacity. It’s not ‘I’m the star of the show, I wrote this, I’m the director’ – no. We’re each contributing to produce something we’re excited about together.” Barnes’s thoughts behind the positive response that Bottleneck has received are that “it’s because when people go and see it, it’s not quite what you think it’s going to be. The play’s really humane, energetic, light-hearted, and then something happens that you don’t expect to see. Something happens… and it’s about how that thing shines a light on our own lives. God, that’s so wanky! I just wrote it as an honest story and luckily people responded well; all you can do is be honest about what you write and see what people think.”
Interviewing Barnes is less like an interview and more like a friendly chat at the pub. He’s the sort of man you’d like to have a pint with, not only because he’s extremely likeable but also because he’s obviously so creatively engaged in his work and theatre. Creative – but dangerous. Maybe it’s something threatening about his beard, but the way he dances around the fringes of Bottleneck’s plot makes me think that he could tell me the story, but then he’d have to kill me – so it might be a better idea to just go buy a ticket. And in Barnes’s ever humble words: “Why should people come see Bottleneck? Something happens. It’s funny. Well, in parts.” I’m sold.
Bottleneck plays at the Soho Theatre until the 9 March. For tickets and more information, visit the Soho Theatre website.
Bottleneck tours to Watford Palace Theatre on 14th March for more details visit the Watford Palace Theatre website.