You’re heading home from the office through Fenchurch Street, or may be Liverpool Street station and you grab a copy of the Standard before jumping on the train. Back to Romford, or Upminster, or maybe Southend or Basildon or one of the many other commuter towns that populate the fringes of east London and Essex.
You flick through and notice a theatre review. Some Shakespeare maybe, a musical, some people in 19th century frocks, or a couple in black tie in a light comedy. Or perhaps some arresting theatre on the edges of live art or installation, a new story from a bit of London or the world you hardly knew existed. It all looks glorious but, where are you?
I grew up, went to school, and lived in Essex-slash-the London Borough of Havering until I was 31. From the age of 17 when I first got into drama and through those impassioned first 14 years of theatre-going, I don’t think I saw once the extraordinary, ordinary lives of the southern aspirational classes, the suburban blue-collar classes, the working-class made good on stage once. Except if I wrote it.
I saw those lives on TV sometimes. Tony Marchant’s searing Take Me Home, telling the story of a passionate love affair between a taxi driver and a lonely housewife in a notional Harlow left an indelible impression on 15-year-old me. The fictional London Borough of Walford, and home to EastEnders has increasingly felt more like the hinterland between London and Essex in recent years rather than the Hackney it is supposedly based upon. Comedy has always been more alive to this world: look no further than the Billericay-set Gavin and Stacey.
It’s always seemed a huge blind spot of the London theatre that the lives, preoccupations, hopes and dreams of the populous suburban south east so rarely appears on its stages. I’ve been happy in many ways to make the territory something of my own over the years with plays such as Summer Begins, Market Boy and In Basildon. But I’d love to see more theatre holding a mirror up to the lives of the aspirational commuting classes.
I’ve returned to Essex commuters in my new play Middle, currently playing at the National Theatre, the second of a trilogy of plays exploring love and loneliness. A couple knocking 50, Maggie and Gary, both from working-class and blue-collar families, have done well from careers in the Square Mile and on Canary Wharf. But they now find their marriage at a crossroad, as they talk it out through the night in their big house in Shenfield.
Since my people are most often experienced in short, snappy episodic scenes in drama on the small screen, in the theatre I like to do something different. In Beginning, which premiered in 2017, and in Middle, the whole play is one uninterrupted scene. We get to spend time with my people; really get to know them and their lives and their world. Time can almost seem to slow down in plays set in the middle of the night. We get to laugh and cry with them; share in their deepest fears, their guilty desires and those hopes, dreams and aspirations.
It’s nice often having the run of the pitch all to myself but I don’t quite understand why the aspirational counties of Kent, Hertfordshire and Essex, with their huge reservoir of stories and potential West End audience, is so under-explored and untapped. After all it’s the oldest truth in the theatre that if you make a play about doctors, doctors come; if you make a play the W.I., the W.I. will come; and if you make a play about the suburban south east they’ll come. When In Basildon was at the Royal Court in 2012, grown men were spotted in the audience wearing West Ham jerseys. They even joined in when I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles was sung over the just-dead Len’s body.
So, what’s it all to do with? I try to write plays in the spirit of the poet John Keats rather than George Bernard Shaw, and prize intuition and uncertainty above reason and knowledge, so I shouldn’t really care. But it bugs me like hell.
I’ve been working in theatre as a playwright for 26 years now and thankfully it is a much more diverse and forward-thinking industry today. There are many more plays by women produced, many more plays by LGBTQIA+ authors and many more plays by Black and global majority writers. But the thing that remains resolutely unchanged is that most produced writers come from a middle-class background. There are relatively few from the working, blue collar and aspirational classes.
A career in the arts isn’t something that’s encouraged when you’re from a background like mine. Teaching as an alternative to a job working in the city, maybe, but the theatre? Never. And if you think about it, if you’re from that background and you’ve got aspirations of scriptwriting and the theatre is a place where you rarely see yourself on stage, you’re bound to think TV may make a better home for your work.
Of course, I can think of notable exceptions, such as fellow Essex writer Vickie Donoghue, who wrote the wonderful play Mudlarks for the HighTide festival, and her friend from across the river, Kent playwright and screenwriter, Natalie Mitchell, who wrote the superb Germ Free Adolescent for the Bunker Theatre. That venue, as run by the amazing Chris Sonnex (now artistic director and joint CEO of Cardboard Citizens, which makes theatre with and for homeless people) was dedicated entirely to producing working-class or blue-collar work, but was forced to close in March 2020. Other venues do splendid work, but there’s no other place dedicated to nurturing those writers. We need one.
I think different kinds of gate-keeping can be, forgive the word, problematic. People who run theatres and nurture living writers are quite understandably looking for new stories, worlds and forms to share with their audiences. And tales from suburbia; from the terraced pebble-dashed house to the detached leafy manse, can often feel deeply unfashionable. Originality is prized over individuality often, however gifted the dramatist. Let’s not get started on the critics.
Fortunately, I know, from all these years in the theatre that audiences have no such hang-ups. They like nothing more than to get lost in a life on stage and that might resemble something like theirs. It’s the most gratifying feeling in the world to share my play with an audience and hear them laugh with painful recognition and cry even as the character on stage holds back the tears. And when they hear the name of the town they come from, or the pub they drink in or the street they rode a bike in as a child, their hearts are fit to burst.
Middle is at the National Theatre, to June 18, nationaltheatre.org.uk