Opening 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.