Tell me about Phys Ed.
The play’s about Neville, a rugby obsessed public school P.E. teacher. He lives in the shadow of his identical twin brother who happens to be England rugby captain. Neville’s team of twelve-year-olds reach the final of the national school-boy rugby tournament and so he finally has the chance to get some glory of his own. As a child, Neville himself competed in the final but because of injury he never got his hands on the cup. The trophy has become the metaphorical and almost literal Holy Grail for him. It’s really about the difficulty of being the less successful sibling.
Nick Osmond, the solo actor, got an award nomination at the 24:7 Theatre Festival in Manchester where it premiered. Then two years later he asked me if he could take it to Edinburgh where it did really well. Now he is doing a short tour around the country ending in Calverton where I live.
The play’s a blend of theatre and stand-up. When I was a drama student at the University of Manchester I was a stand-up comic on the North West comedy circuit. I wasn’t the best comedy headliner in the world but I was quite tidy as an MC. I’ve always been enthusiastic about drama writing and comedy in particular and so I put some of the stand-up style of delivery into Phys Ed.
In contrast your new play, Blink, is much more serious…
Yes, the central character, Thomas, suffers from locked-in syndrome as a result of a brain injury. He has all his mental faculties but has been able to communicate only by blinking. The story’s not so much about his condition as about his difficulty in communicating his love for his daughter, Sylvia and the way his illness affects her family relationships. Then there’s Thomas’s belief that the senior doctor treating him has been ending his patients’ lives when he considers them to be incurable, a suspicion which again he is unable to communicate. It’s deep and dark but quite life-affirming.
How did you come to have Blink produced by the People’s Theatre Company at the Nottingham Arts Theatre?
This is the first time I’ve worked with them. I did a one-man show called Limbo and one of the people involved was also on the technical staff at the Arts Theatre. They liked my story-telling and wanted a new play for their in-house season so they asked me to write something. They wanted it to be an issue-based play but they didn’t specify any further. The inspiration for Blink came about after seeing the effects of a stroke on my grandmother and the frustration she had trying to communicate. Locked-in syndrome was the extreme version of that.
They are an amateur/semi-pro company but the cast is extraordinary and we have a very experienced director, Paul Jennings. I’m a bit more involved than usual as I’m turning up to rehearsals and answering the cast’s questions about the characters. Normally I’m very hands-off as I’m happy to create a work and hand it over for other creative people to do things with. It doesn’t pay to be too possessive as it helps to let others have influence over your work.
Are you originally from Nottingham?
No, I grew up in a small village in West Sussex, then studied in Manchester, spent some time in London and Leeds and then arrived in Nottingham around six years ago. I’m here for keeps now. I have kids at school, great friends around and I feel really comfortable and at home here.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve just finished a film script about the Calverton Plough Play. A plough play is a bizarre old tradition similar to morris dancing where local farm boys would tour round to pubs and houses in the freezing cold of January performing a kind of morality tale. I’ve been involved with the one in Calverton for a few years and I find it fascinating. The current script dates from the 1890s and deals with the theme of rebirth. A lot of the original plough boys died in the First World War so the tradition died out but it was revived in the 1970s as a tribute to them.
Ian Smith of the Nottingham Television Workshop asked me to write a short film script about it. My story is a funny, fast-paced comedy about two fiercely competitive rival groups of performers who tear around the countryside. It’s a bit like morris dancing crossed with the Wacky Races. The script’s a bit longer than expected so we’re trying to make a twenty or thirty minute version using local actors and film-makers which will hopefully generate interest and funding to make a full length film.
In the past you were involved in comedy podcasts…
I did a lot of comedy sketch writing for a digital radio station when I was in London and when I moved to the East Midlands I wrote for BBC Radio Leicester. We were in the middle of the Jonathan Ross / Sachsgate affair and the BBC didn’t want to put out anything that could conceivably offend anyone. And anyway since we were on at 11 o’clock in the morning it all had to be really clean.
Traces of Nuts was a slightly smuttier, unbroadcastable version of that show made up of the sketches we couldn’t put on air. I wrote about four hundred comedy sketches in two years and it was loads of fun. We got funding from a media company to make more and we started getting a ridiculously good number of downloads. This was before the Twitter era when it became easier to publicise your own content. Nowadays, everyone is doing it so the problem is trying to get noticed amongst the crowd. However, the old podcasts are still there gathering dust so we are planning to resurrect them and get some of the cleaner stuff on the air.
Are you a writer full-time?
I wish I was. I’m starting to get some paid commissions but I’m still having to maintain a day job. The proportion of office job to writing is starting to swing the right way. I try to find open doors but it is difficult at the moment with, for example, the Theatre Writing Partnership losing funding. I realise there are dozens, if not hundreds, of people in my position and I’m competing with all of them. It’s not going to be easy but I’ll keep going.
What do you think of the arts scene in Nottingham?
Wherever I’ve lived I’ve always been involved in the creative community. When I moved to Nottingham I was looking for some kind of creative fringe that would enable me to put on plays but I don’t think it really existed then. Now the Playhouse is trying to encourage local writing. The New Perspectives initiatives are very good, looking to devise work with new writers and actors. The Nottingham Writers Studio is also very helpful. I think artists in general are supported very well these days.
Is there anything else you want to tell our readers?
It’s great that the People’s Theatre Company and other companies are going to champion new writing and help to get new works by local writers on stage. So if you want to support new playwrights then please come along to the shows.
This interview was carried out in October 2011.
Phys Ed will be performed upstairs in the Canal House on Wednesday 6 March 2013 at 8pm. Tickets are £7 (£5 concessions) and can be booked by emailing Matthew.Pickles@dsa.gsi.gov.uk. This event was organised by staff at the Driving Standards Agency to raise money for Macmillan and The Stroke Association.
Blink was performed at the Nottingham Arts Theatre from Tuesday 15 to Saturday 19 November 2011.