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Feature: Cuckoo at the Unicorn Theatre

Posted on 13 January 2014 by Laura Turner

suhalya el-bushraOpening this week at the Unicorn Theatre is a new play by Hollyoaks writer Suhayla El-Bushra, whose play Pigeons recently ran at the Royal Court Theatre. Cuckoo is, in her own words, “a play about an unlikely friendship between two teenage girls, Jenny and Nadine, and how this friendship is tested when Jenny becomes jealous of the relationship that develops between Nadine and Jenny’s mum, Erica. Although it’s about teenagers it also raises questions about parenting – how responsible should we be for children whose own parents have failed or are unable look after them?”

What inspired you to write this piece?

I was working in a Pupil Referral Unit with teenage girls who had been excluded from mainstream education. I had worked there for some time, mainly with boys, but I had come back from maternity leave and there were suddenly a lot more girls attending. I was intrigued by the way their behaviour was different from the boys. They were much more charming and sweet – but then would go out and get arrested for beating people up after school. I wanted to explore what it was that made girls go out and commit acts of violence; young women aren’t ‘supposed’ or expected to be aggressive, so I was interested in female anger – where it comes from and what happens when it’s suppressed. I had also recently become a mother, so I think I was subconsciously looking at that through Erica’s character – at the devotion and sacrifice involved in having a child, but also the resentment that can stem from that.

There must have been challenges in writing that story. 

I hadn’t written a play before – I’d only written feature film scripts – so I was getting my head around writing for a different medium. The first draft had loads of scenes, several locations and a cast of about 20, but it was also structured like a screenplay. It took me a while to work out what would and wouldn’t work on stage, but luckily I had the chance to work with some actors and a director on the characters and the story quite early on in the process, so I learnt a huge amount doing that.

I started Cuckoo a long time ago and kept coming back to it at various stages, with long gaps in between. I spent time developing it in Brighton, but after I’d written the second draft I had the chance to work on it some more with Nathan Curry (who’s directing it now) for a couple of days at the National Theatre Studio with some professional actors. So that really moved it on as well. And it’s great that Nathan has been on board since then, partly because he’s a brilliant director, but it also meant that when we started rehearsals I knew he already had a very strong understanding of what the play was about.

Having written for TV shows such as Hollyoaks, just how different is writing for the stage?

In terms of form, that’s a tough one to answer, because for every rule you can find about the difference between writing for stage and screen, you can also find an example that breaks that rule. For me, the main difference is about the process. There are usually a lot fewer people involved in putting on a play than there is in creating a TV series or a feature film, so it tends to be you, a director and some actors in a rehearsal room trying things out. It’s a very immediate and direct way of working. In TV you might work on a script with script editors and producers without meeting the actors and director, so you do miss out on that part of the process and you can feel a bit detached from the end product when you finally see it.

How do you balance the young girls’ stories with the role of the mother in the play?

I think it’s definitely more the girls’ story, although Erica is so important in terms of driving the plot. It’s her behaviour that influences the girls’ actions, but the focus is more on the effect that has on the girls than on her. There’s a slight imbalance in that there’s less explanation for Erica’s behaviour: it’s very clear what’s motivating the girls, whereas the actress playing Erica has to do a lot more digging, but it is in there.

What do you draw on as a writer?

Anything and everything. Books, articles, things I overhear on the bus. I think you can’t help but put some of your own personal experience into whatever you write though, even if you try really hard to avoid it.

Why is the Unicorn the right home for this play?

I think the fact that, as well as staging work for young audiences, they’re also keen to put on plays that explore our relationship with young people, as Cuckoo does, makes it the right home. I’m very proud that it’s being staged at The Unicorn as I’ve seen some brilliant work there recently.

I’ve been involved with both [rehearsals and casting]. I think it’s vital for writers to sit in on rehearsals and understand that process. I don’t ever feel like I have a huge amount to offer by that stage of the proceedings, but it’s interesting to see how it takes shape. I think you learn a lot and that it definitely informs the next thing you write.

Cuckoo plays at the Unicorn Theatre from 14 to 25 January. For tickets and more information, visit the Unicorn Theatre website.

Laura Turner

Laura Turner

Laura trained as a writer with Hull Truck Theatre, BBC New Talent and the Royal Court Theatre. She has worked extensively with touring theatre company Chapterhouse, where she is currently Writer in Residence. Laura has previously written for BBC EastEnders: E20 and her adaptation of Jane Eyre toured theatres with Hull Truck Theatre Company at the start of 2013. She is now working on an original play for the theatre, as well as projects with Bolton Octagon, Middle Child Theatre and The Ashton Group, Cumbria. She has been long-listed for the Bruntwood Prize for Playwrighting and the Adrienne Benham Award.

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Review: HOME

Posted on 10 August 2013 by Amelia Forsbrook


How do you give unrepresented young people a voice? Well, first of all you listen to them. In this sharp and informed piece of verbatim theatre, director Nadia Fall has done just that — interviewing residents and staff in one of East London’s biggest hostels, before channelling as many of their experiences as possible into a production that feels at once sharply choreographed and deliciously spontaneous.

From Fall’s 30 or so hours of collected footage springs Target East, a fictional refuge built to house truthful accounts, which positions the audience as the interviewer. While little interaction is demanded of us, characters double-take as they remember they are being observed, and their narratives anticipate our questions, adding a vein of dialogue to the play. With the odd flirtation or nervous glance at the audience, the cast delivers honest and sharp responses to questions that may well have been triggered from the plot so far, pre-empting any prejudices that may spring from their situations.

Chances are, you won’t be surprised by the stories in this world of teen pregnancies and yoof bravado, but this strength of this play does not come from these accounts alone. HOME is a close and patient look at the pieces left when Britain breaks, and a celebration of the people and resources dedicated to putting them back together. Cast as the silent interviewer, we get a first-hand insight into the nourishing value of these centres, as the characters gain confidence from their interactions with us. “Lorry? You know “lorry”?” asks Refugee Eritrean Girl to an unspecified individual in the first row. “Lorry” she then asserts, confident in new bridge of understanding. Kadiff Kirwan’s Singing Boy winces under our wordless questioning, and Richard Ryder’s voice direction shows through here as sentences either trail off or rise into needy upward inflections in soundbites of authenticity. Singing Boy’s trust grows until is ready to offer us a version of Beyonce’s Halo, before humbly thanking us for our applause. At Target East, right in front of our eyes, confidence is being built.

It was a brilliant decision to house this exploration of homelessness in the temporary location of The Shed, and designer Ruth Sutcliffe has developed what feels like a found space with a serious respect for detail. So true and functional is the design, as you enter the auditorium it’s easy to ignore the whiteboards where meetings are scheduled, a parked pushchair and the chlamydia pamphlets. Sutcliffe continues this authentic hostel vibe with a shatterproof window, which splits the stage. Through a pane clouded with fingerprints, we gain a fresh and insightful view of how day to day life in the centre continues outside the structured setting of the interview.

HOME is strong enough that it doesn’t need to be sentimental to get its point across, and the greatest laughs come at the expense of officious security guard Mr Stevenson, who is interrupted and undermined with Tattoo Boy’s breezy greeting, “Easy Stevenson! You alright, bruv?”. Ashley McGuire also gets the balance between personable and pragmatic spot on in her portrayal of hostel manager Sharon, who champions the “whole-istic” nature of her centre between swift marches across the stage, always clutching a large bunch of keys with a characterising flair.

In tune with the pacey musicality of the entire production — raw songs accompanied by acoustic guitar bring a certain sanctity to Target, shuffled Rihanna megamixes shine bright on manipulative relationships and rap brings new energy to downbeat stories — one wordless character truly captivates. This character is the pregnant young woman who rejects the verbatim form of this production, instead delivering her story through body language and beatboxing. Brought to life by twice UK Female Beatbox Champion, Grace Savage, Jade is a reminder of the stories that won’t fit into the play. In a production that gently alerts us to squeezed resources, it’s also a reminder of our own individual and societal responsibility to answer the question posed by Sharon at the piece’s conclusion:  “Well, what are we going to do with you then?”.

HOME is playing at The Shed at the National Theatre. For more information and tickets visit the NT’s website.

Amelia Forsbrook

Formerly one of the Wales Arts International critics, Amelia moved to London in early 2012 with two big aims: to continue working as an arts writer, and to discover whether it's ever possible to pull off both telephones and flying in theatre. With particular interests in regional arts, South Asian performance and twentieth century European theatre, Amelia writes for a number of other publications, as well as being an Off West End Assessor.

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Blog: Why do an MA in Playwriting?

Posted on 24 June 2013 by Richard Walls

inkAn air of suspicion hangs over awarding an academic qualification for what is essentially an inscrutable, unfathomable act: that of writing a good play. Worries persist that an academic environment will preach dogma, whereas a thriving theatre ecology demands urgency, innovation and challenge. I shared many of these concerns when I enrolled on the MA in Writing for Performance at Goldsmiths College, London but soon realised that the programme’s success was built on a philosophy similar to that running through institutions such as the National Theatre Studio; namely, an emphasis on process rather than simply product.

Playwriting takes immense concentration and confidence, and having the time to explore ideas in an environment which encourages risk, scrutiny and precision can prove invaluable in strengthening a writer’s vision. Through workshops, dramaturgy sessions and detailed feedback a writer can begin to discern what they want to be writing from what they only think they should be writing, and to apply frames of thinking to help them to do just that. It’s not about learning how to write a play, it’s about learning how to write your play.

Crucial to this is having other writers on the course to provoke new ideas and challenge existing ones. Muscularity in thinking develops when one is forced to not only articulate a dramaturgical position but also to defend it and develop it further. This instils courage in a playwright, empowering a writer to lead in their thinking rather than to imitate, with the strength to not only follow their convictions but also to adapt to new strategies and remain versatile in their approach.

An academic infrastructure also brings with it access to a huge range of reading materials (plays, plays and more plays), rehearsal spaces and societies to complement one’s writing. Being surrounded by an inquisitive student body encourages intellectual rigour, whilst frequent deadlines bring discipline. Many of the teaching staff are plying their trade in the real world, such as Dan Rebellato at Royal Holloway and Fin Kennedy at Goldsmiths, and this allows for a unique insight into the theatre industry as it stands today and how a working playwright can best position themselves within it.

Playwriting cannot be taught, but good practice can. Assisting a writer in being able to ask the right questions of their script and of themselves, is what will ultimately empower them to go from having a desk full of opening lines to a desk full of curtain lines. Writing is a craft, a life-long pursuit of something inextricable. Beckett’s “Try again. Fail again. Fail better”, is a good adage for any playwright, but for the confidence to do just that, an MA in Playwriting might just be the place to start.

Photo: ‘Ink jar and quills’ by Flickr user Charles Stanford under a Creative Commons Licence.

Richard Walls

Richard Walls

Richard is a playwright and recent graduate of the MA in Writing for Performance at Goldsmiths College, London. He is currently under commission to Theatre Absolute.

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Gruesome Playground Injuries at The Gate

Posted on 03 February 2013 by Ellen Carr

Justin Audibert in Gruesome Playground Injuries rehearsals by Ludovic des Cognets

The UK premiere of Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries is being staged at The Gate until 16 February. Mariah Gale and Felix Scott’s performances have already been highly praised in this intense 80-minute two-hander, described variously as a “crazily watchable anti-rom com” and “a fiercely honest story of modern America”. I chatted to Leverhulme Bursary-winning Director Justin Audibert about working on the show, his advice for young directors and what the future might hold.

Let me say now that the answer to that last point involves discussing the sex lives of the over 65s; a statement which I hope goes some way to demonstrate Audibert’s lively character and that he’s an interesting director. Trained on the Theatre Directing MFA at Birkbeck University, this 31 year-old has got his foot firmly in the door. He is Resident Director at the National Theatre Studio, holder of the 2012 Leverhulme Award, Associate Director at the Finborough and an education practitioner for the RSC and Told By An Idiot. So it’s no surprise he’s been heralded as “one to watch” on the back of this recent production.

Audibert is drawn to plays that “question why human beings do the things that they do”, and sees all art as a great reflector of the choices of humanity. He looks for writers who “create dialogue that has something to it, a wit or a character”. Upon first read of Gruesome Playground Injuries he was impressed by the sharpness of the writing and the way it “zings off the page”. He was also excited by the challenge of having to show the two characters moving from age eight to 38. A lot of rehearsal was spent “filling in the blanks” of their relationship between the ages, work that manifests itself in the show’s transitions.

In Audibert’s words this play is “a time hopping dysfunctional love story between two damaged people”. The rehearsal process was spent untangling this love story, and examining the nature of pain. Audibert describes himself as a text-based director, taking a Stanislavskian approach of discerning character’s objectives and obstacles and “looking for the clues with the actors in the text”. He learnt from Katie Mitchell’s book The Director’s Craft to seek the events in each scene – events that make everything shift for the characters. Working in this way he and the cast “made a set of choices that gave us an agreed set of parameters through which we were going to tell the story”.

He describes being a director as having “a desire to tell stories clearly”; it is the director’s job to coach the actors “so they feel as confident, happy and committed as they possibly can while they’re on stage, and have a clear sense of why they’re telling this story”. The big questions Audibert identified in Gruesome Playground Injuries are “why do we sometimes have relationships that are bad for us, and why do we love people that are damaged?” To help explore these in rehearsal he worked with movement director Joe Wild. Looking at the physical signifiers of age, and also of pain and injury, was combined with the focused text work. One of the major questions examined movement-wise was “the difference between pain in an immediate sense and long term decay”.

It’s certainly not an easy subject to work with, but Audibert explains how the rehearsal room always maintained a fun atmosphere: “anytime we got a bit stressed we’d play a game, run around the room like idiots or eat cake”. He speaks fondly of the process of working with his entire team, and says the show wouldn’t be what it is without the input of all involved. Lily Arnold’s design, for example, hugely influenced the acting and choices made. Audibert has a very clear understanding of the director as collaborator, as the facilitator of “a dialogue between artists” and shares the following piece of advice about his craft: “Mostly directing is about speaking the different languages of the people you work with accurately… If you do that, you have a happy team and a happy team makes good work.”

Another major piece of advice he offers young directors is “ don’t get yourself in financial debt to work” and “there’s no such thing as a big break, you just have to keep working at it”, which is wonderfully refreshing to hear. Reading this advice, you may pin Audibert down as a sensible, non-risk taking director. You’d be wrong. His dream production to direct is “a version of Spring Awakening set in an old people’s home with all OAPs”. Why? Because it’s a play that touches him every time he reads it, and “nobody talks about the sex lives of people over 65”. A very valid point and I agree with him that it would be a fascinating process where a young director could learn a lot. He also wants to direct King Lear, seeing it as the “greatest parable of humanity of them all”.

Gruesome Playground Injuries plays at The Gate until 16 February. For tickets and more information, visit

Image credit: Justin Audibert in rehearsals for Gruesome Playground Injuries by Ludovic des Cognets

Ellen Carr

Ellen Carr

Ellen is Artistic Director of Witness Theatre, a company she established after graduating from the University of Sussex in 2011. Ellen writes, directs and produces for Witness Theatre and spends the rest of her time doing more writing. She is currently writing her own blog witnesstoexperience daily, contributes regular features to One Stop Arts and can also be found writing the occasional screenplay.

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