Image courtesy of Tania Van Amse

Since starting his writing career just two short years ago, Stuart Slade has already been nominated for two Off West End Awards, and is fast establishing himself as one of theatre’s brightest new talents. Currently showing at Battersea’s Theatre 503, his fifth play and full length professional debut, Cans, has received rave reviews, praised for both its humour its handling of some very serious, and very timely, subject matter.

An intimate piece about grief and loss, Cans tells the story of student Jen and her Uncle Len as they struggle to cope with the death of Jen’s father. A once well-loved radio show host and charity fundraiser, Jen’s dad was considered something of a national treasure until scandalous accusations are levelled at him, leading to a police investigation that destroys his reputation and finally prompts him to end his own life. Left to deal with the fallout from these events, his little family is irreparably damaged, with Daddy’s girl Jen now faced with a daily ritual of hatred and humiliation that sees her spat at in supermarkets and condemned for her father’s sins.

Enter Uncle Len. Described by Slade as “a bit of a waster”, Len shows up at Jen’s with several cans of cider, and together, they retreat into the garage where they attempt to drown their sorrows in drink and talk. As they wax foul-mouthed and philosophical, their touching conversation becomes at once funny and profound.

Originally conceived as a short play, the idea for Cans first emerged during a Rapid Write Response session at Theatre 503. After watching Sam Potter’s Mucky Kid, Slade was challenged to write a short piece about drowning mice in a bucket.

“At the time, I actually had mice in my house, and it was horrible,” he said. “You can hear them running around: that scratching punctuates your nightmares. So it was kind of cathartic for me to write about it.”

It didn’t take long for Theatre 503 to recognise the potential of his idea for further development. Despite having only recently started writing plays, Slade was commissioned to complete a full-length version within a matter of months. Things have moved quickly for him elsewhere, too: in his two years of writing for the stage, Slade has managed to complete a total of five plays, all while raising a toddler.

“I like putting myself under that kind of pressure,” he laughed. “It makes me actually get things done!”

Naturally, though, it hasn’t always been easy. Slade first promised himself that he would write a play soon after the birth of his daughter, but it was a while before he found the time to follow that promise through:

“My daughter was born in 2010, and so for the first year, that was quite prohibitive, but as she grew older, I had a bit more time to get on with things. When we first started, we could only meet up for rehearsals in the evenings. It’s much better now that we can work in the daytime. Really though, I think it’s just a question of forcing yourself to do it. You can always find something to stop you getting on with it if you want to.”

Cans is directed by Dan Pick who, like Slade, has a background in documentary and commercial film production. The two have built up such a rapport since meeting through Theatre 503 that they’ve since gone on to set up their own production company, Kuleshov.

 “I’ve actually just finished my next play with him,” said Slade. “Dan and I have so much fun doing stuff together that we’re always looking for the next project. The new play is called B21 and it’s about a terrorist atrocity. We’ve got six actors working on that at the moment.”

 Having no real background in theatre, Slade feels he has learned a great deal from watching Pick at work:

 “I try to go along to the rehearsals as much as possible. I think that’s a really useful thing to do, as a writer, because it helps you to learn about what works and what doesn’t and why. So yeah, I just go and hang out and irritate Dan!”

 It was also through Pick that he was first introduced to the play’s actors, Graham O’Mara and Jennifer Clement.

 “Graham has been in all five of my plays. He’s an absolutely extraordinary actor. He has this fantastic sense of comedy and of pathos, and always plays his characters with total conviction.

Jen is an amazing actor too. She was at drama school in Bristol with Dan, so we got her in for an audition and she just smashed it. I knew straight away that we had to cast her.”

With a great cast and a fantastic director helping him to turn his vision into a reality, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Slade is tremendously pleased with the finished result.

“I always expect everything to be a catastrophe, so it’s just great when it turns out not to be!” he exclaimed. “I remember it seemed like nothing was working just a couple of days before the first performance, but somehow everything had been magically pulled together by press night. The great thing about theatre, though, is that it’s never just a personal achievement: when it succeeds, that success belongs to the whole group.”

Asked whether his new-found success had left him with any advice to offer aspiring playwrights, Slade firmly advocated practical, hands-on experience over studying the mechanics at a distance:

“I’m very loyal to Theatre 503 which has been massively supportive all the way through. This is now the fourth thing I’ve done with them, and it simply wouldn’t have happened without them. But there are plenty more opportunities with other theatres out there, and you learn so much more from trying things yourself than you ever could from any course or book.

Of course, you’ve also got to actually do the work, too. Personally, I’m a bit of a plodder: I don’t really get flashes of inspiration or anything, I just sit down and force myself to write five pages of dialogue per day.”

Those interested in trying their hand at playwriting may be interested to know that Theatre 503 is running a Rapid Write Response session for Cans on Sunday 23rd November. Perhaps this play, inspired by another, will itself go on to be the starting point for something new.

 Cans is showing at Theatre 503 until Sat 29 November, with a “Pay What You Can” offer on Sundays.