In the world of theatre, new writing = risk. Received wisdom or old wives’ tale? Whatever your belief, there are early signs that, post-pandemic, theatre wants to re-write the rules. After a cataclysmic year of closures, everyone expected it to lean heavily on box office reliables: Shakespeare, musicals and revivals. But instead, there’s a wave of young emerging playwrights with work hitting our stages in the West End and beyond, exploring everything from the climate crisis to social media influencers.
Last week, actor Jack Holden’s debut play Cruise, about 1980s Soho and the Aids crisis, became the first new play to open in the West End for over a year. When was the last time a debut play opened cold in the West End? But Cruise is not an outlier. This week, Amy Berryman’s debut play Walden, starring Gemma Arterton and exploring the climate crisis, opens at the Harold Pinter Theatre. It’s the first of Sonia Friedman’s Re:Emerge season, which is putting three plays by fresh new voices in the West End; it will later feature Yasmin Joseph’s debut J’Ouvert and Joseph Charlton’s Anna X, which will star Emma Corrin and Nabhaan Rizwan. And the Kiln Theatre in NW6 has chosen to reopen with Amy Trigg’s debut play Reasons You Should(n’t) Love Me, one of the winners of the inaugural Women’s Prize for Playwriting. At a time when young writers, with little or no track record, might have been the thing producers avoided with a barge pole, it’s a bold gauntlet thrown down to audiences starved of live culture.
“There’s been a real aversion to risk in the commercial arm of our industry for a long time, and I just really hope that this is a little example of [the fact that] we need to challenge our audiences. We need to put new stuff in front of them, instead of rerunning the same shows for decades. I think that’s good for our industry, and it’s good for our culture on a wider level to mix up our stories and bring a diverse range of voices to the table,” says Holden, 30.
Cruise, which he performs himself, was inspired by a real story Holden heard while volunteering for LGBT+ helpline Switchboard: a young man in the 1980s who committed himself to a life of hedonism after being diagnosed with Aids and given four years to live. Except... he survived. The story had been in his head for a while, but living through a global pandemic made him see the parallels with the Aids crisis.
He admits to being “one of those annoying people” who was productive last year; after the obligatory banana bread-baking and frantic BBC news binge-watching, he wrote Cruise quickly during lockdown. But he also describes 2020 as “the hardest of my career, for sure”; he genuinely thought his acting career was over. Previously, he’d had work straight out of drama school – he got the lead in War Horse before roles with the RSC, the Almeida and beyond. In the first few months of lockdown, he got a job in a warehouse packing flowers to earn money, before eventually getting some government support. The government’s cash lifeline for the arts in the form of the Cultural Recovery Fund was the first time he thought theatres might be able to hang on. “I guess I thought, okay, so the industry isn’t going to be completely decimated – there’s going to be something on the other side of this. The challenge then was, if you can survive, then that’s probably better than bowing out now.”
That looming fear of having to leave the industry was real and present for many creatives in the last year, not helped by the resurfacing of a government advert that suggested a ballerina should “retrain in cyber”. American playwright Amy Berryman, who grew up in Seattle and is in London for the production of her play Walden, felt it too. Its original world premiere, at a regional theatre in Pennsylvania was postponed because of the pandemic. “I sort of felt like, I’m this emerging playwright, but I don’t know what my future looks like, I’ve no idea what theatre is going to look like when it comes back. There was a lot of despair, honestly. And I live by myself, so there was a lot of loneliness,” she says.
Getting the news “out of the blue” that Friedman wanted to produce Walden in the West End was remarkable, she says. “You never know who’s going to connect with your work – that’s kind of what I’ve taken from this. I would encourage other writers to keep going because you just don’t know.” Berryman also started her career as an actor, working in New York, but started writing “after about five years, really frustrated with just the grind of it all, and not very interesting roles, and just wanting to have a little more agency over my work.” she says. Her plays – although this is her professional debut, she’s written four others – always come from “a question that feels really unanswerable or really difficult”; the question at the heart of Walden is whether it’s too late to save our planet from the damage inflicted by climate change.
Newcastle-born Joseph Charlton’s background in journalism is a big influence on his plays. His first, Brilliant Jerks in 2018, was inspired by a column he was writing about Uber for the i paper. It was staged at the Vault Festival before he even got an agent and he’s now developing it into a series for the BBC. He’s re-working his play Anna X, which also had a short run at Vault Fest, for the West End Re:Emerge season, freed from the limitations of the festival’s small space and one-hour running time limit. He was intrigued by the story of fake heiress Anna Delvey Sorokin, and the world of elite socialites which has spawned exclusive dating apps like Raya. “It’s kind of a love story about two outsiders in the socialite world of New York, and I guess it kind of wants to be an update on the Great Gatsby and Talented Mr Ripley, stories about outsiders trying to break into elite spaces, basically.”
Playwriting is “an expensive habit”, says Charlton – he’s been financially sustained over the last couple of years by writing for TV, including the excellent horny banker drama Industry. But theatre remains a crucial talent pool for telly; he’s found that those who have honed their craft through playwriting are very valued in writer’s rooms. He’s very aware that the star casting of Emma Corrin in his play gives it an extra buzz, but it also makes theatre more appealing to younger audiences. “If there’s some kids that come from outside of London and they’ve never been to the theatre before, or they hate theatre because they think it’s all Shakespeare, and they see something which is actually enjoyable, then that’s obviously really important.”
Yasmin Joseph’s play J’Ouvert, which is also part of the Re:Emerge season, brings a live DJ to the Harold Pinter stage to evoke something else we missed last year: Notting Hill Carnival. It was inspired by her experiences hearing a Labor Day parade outside of her window while interning in New York. The sound of soca music instantly gave Londoner Joseph, 29, a sense of home, but a year later she discovered that a woman had been shot and killed at the same celebrations in Brooklyn for refusing to dance with a man. “I was really angry and thought a lot about what carnival means to me in this country, as a space to lay claim to my heritage, as a vital act of resistance and a way of pushing back against erasure. For me, black women are an integral part of the tradition, and I think J’Ouvert was my way of reconciling with how we’re mistreated in the spaces that we pioneer,” she said.
The play first opened at Theatre503 in Battersea in 2019 and Joseph was shortlisted for Most Promising Playwright at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards; earlier this year, it was captured and broadcast on the BBC. It was spotted by a member of Friedman’s team during its run at 503, who was impressed by how it transformed the theatre’s whole atmosphere. “It wasn’t just a play, but an event,” says Friedman. She wanted to programme it not just to bring Joseph’s voice to a wider audience, but to celebrate London. “This is a play about Londoners, foregrounding the stories of the Caribbean community, about young people who are finding their place in the world, their means of self-expression – it’s a story for this moment, for our home.”
Staging debuts and work from small venues in the West End is a show of support for theatre’s entire ecology, says Friedman, who has been a tireless advocate for the industry over the past year. “It’s sign of my belief that these fresh, entertaining, and exciting stories are stories which many people will want to see, hear and share. They speak directly to ideas and concerns of today’s world – climate change, the need for equality, diversity and inclusion, and the consequences of our obsession with social media,” she says. But it’s also a way to try and widen who goes to the theatre. Her company are working with “change agent” Zena Tuitt to ensure the shows are reaching new audiences, and support from the Arts Council and National Lottery have allowed them to offer affordable ticket prices for all shows.
Like Holden and Berryman, Amy Trigg is also an actor who turned to writing. She had shared a 20-minute extract of her debut play Reasons You Should(n’t) Love Me with her friends, who had encouraged her to submit it to competitions – it went on to become the joint winner of the first ever Women’s Prize for Playwriting. Trigg, 28, who is from Essex, has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair; her play, which she performs herself, is about a woman called Juno and “explores the impact being a disabled child has on early adulthood.”
The play began as a series of essays, each answering a different question that she is often asked: “Can you feel your legs, or can you have sex?” But it was also because Trigg wanted to create a character that she really wanted to play. “There aren’t loads of plays out there with really badass disabled characters who are more than just a stereotype,” she says. “I wanted the light and shade in it, showing this joyful character who isn’t a victim or anything. She’s dealing with trauma, but she’s not a victim, she’s not inspiration porn. She has the ability to be joyful and sad and everything in between.”
It’s Trigg’s hope that accessibility stays high on the agenda for theatre’s return. Making work available to watch online has allowed many, especially in the deaf and disabled community, to see plays for the first time. She also believes that if some of her Zoom meetings had been in person, “I probably wouldn’t have been able to make it into certain offices”.
These writers are optimistic about this moment, and the opportunity it presents to properly shake up who gets to tell stories. “There’s too many old, stale, bad writers in theatre,” says Charlton. “[This is] coming from a white man, but there’s a lot of older white male writers who I think have already written their best work, and continue to get commissions. Theatre will continue losing its audiences if it doesn’t update, by having newer voices that are able to say things to young people. It will make itself into an irrelevance.”
Or as Holden puts it: “Nothing could be worse than the year we’ve just had – so why don’t we just try some stuff out?”
Cruise is at the Duchess Theatre until June 13, cruisetheplay.com; Walden (until June 12), J’Ouvert (16 June - 3 July) and Anna X (10 July - 4 August) are at the Harold Pinter Theatre, soniafriedman.com; Reasons You Should(n’t) Love Me is at the Kiln Theatre until June 12, kilntheatre.com