Lee Mattinson cannot believe his luck. His play Chalet Lines is on at the Bush Theatre and his excitement is palpable. The Coronation Street writer has to find time around his full-time job to write his plays and yet still manages to find power in theatre. For him, it is about the immediacy of being in that world with those characters.
Chalet Lines is “about lots of women who go to Butlins… This family go there every single year and it jumps through time and charts three years and three big events that happened in their life, from the sixties up to modern day. It’s kind of about inheritance, emotional inheritance and how dysfunctional parenting can be passed down through generations, and whether you can not turn into your parents, or whether you’re destined to be… as they are.”
Before getting a job running an auditorium bar when he had finished his Fine Art degree, Mattinson had never set foot in a theatre before. “I went to see a play called The Filleting Machine by Tom Hadaway, which is a little North East play. The bar was in the corner of the theatre so when the show went up you just put the shutters down and watched the show. I thought, ‘this is brilliant! I get to watch a show at work.’ It was just a little 45-minute play about North East people around the kitchen table talking about unemployment and I’d not been in a theatre before – I didn’t know you could do that. I was stupid. It was a kind of Educating Rita thing. I just assumed it was for posh people or they’d talk about things that I didn’t understand or that I had no right to go; that kind of naive stupid thing. I was blown away by it because I could relate to every single word they said and I was totally moved. I was like, ‘God, this theatre thing is quite exciting’. Then, I had just started writing. I took a writing course a month before, I was writing prose and then I thought I quite want to write theatre. So I did a free playwriting course at Live Theatre and it taught me everything I needed to know, really, and then I started writing.”
Mattinson’s accent reveals his North Eastern heritage, and this has influenced both what he writes about and the way he works. “I always write about people from the North East because it’s a world that I know, that working class world and what people in that world care about. I’ve done a lot of work with Live Theatre in Newcastle, they have a really brilliant artistic statement. Their audience is predominantly working class people and they started off as a touring theatre and they would make shows about those people. They would go out in the van and just tour round and kept hold of that ethos, they commission really exciting work and it’s lush.”
The process of getting Chalet Lines ready for performance in London has been very different to what Lee is usually used to. “Well normally I love being involved in the whole process, like picking out costumes and all that kind of jazz and I love getting my face in everything because I love that whole process, but because this one is happening in London and I was in Manchester, and I work full time, it’s not been easy to be down there. I’ve only been down to rehearsals for two half-days so I’ve only seen a little bit of one of the scenes. It’s weird, but I’m just going to see it like everyone else does on Friday night but that’s kind of secretly massively exciting. It means there’s not much to worry about really, I’ll like it or I won’t like it. It’s been nice to have that distance from it as well. Normally you’re so in it that you lose that experience that everyone else is getting, so it’s, for the first time, been nice to have that.”
So what exactly is “that”? What is the power of theatre, in our digital age of immediate information and gratification? Mattinson was an art student who came to theatre via prose writing and has now chosen to make it his passion, even though his full-time job is in television. “What a question!” he exclaims. “It’s just a really intense form of storytelling because they [the characters] are right in front of your face. There’s a million magical things that you can do with that. It’s raw, it’s a raw and honest form of storytelling.”
And to make the most of this unique form of storytelling, you have to be yourself and just “write, write, write basically. It takes a long time to find your voice, find your themes, find your characters that you’re interested in, and you only get to that by trying everything out and then realising what you’re good at and what your strengths are. Writing what you know, I suppose, as well because it’s your individual take on something so it’s going to be special. Just make sure it’s your little heart on the page and then it’ll be unique because it’s yours. Just be honest, I suppose.”
For Mattinson, being a playwright in 2012 means pure excitement. “I feel like I’m being allowed into a world that when you think you’re about to get caught out at something, you’re like, ‘Oh, no they haven’t realised that I’m a bit of a fraudster yet, how have I managed to pull that off?’ I didn’t imagine that this would ever happen. The Bush is such an amazing theatre but I just can’t believe that they’d even read my work, so to be producing it is just fantastic.”
Chalet Lines plays at The Bush Theatre, Shepherd’s Bush, until 5 May. For more information and to book tickets, visit The Bush Theatre’s website.