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Interview: Stephen Lowe

1 June 06 interview: Nathan Miller

We have a word with the writer and director entrusted to bring the story of legendary Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough to the stage...

Stephen Lowe was born in Nottingham and now spends half his time here and the other half in southern France. He is an actor, director, artistic director and playwright and former chair of Art Council East Midlands. His plays have been staged at the Royal Court, the Royal Shakespeare Company and most of England's leading repertory theatres. Most topically, he’s the writer of the Brian Clough extravaganza Old Big ‘Ead in The Spirit Of The Man, currently completing its victory lap of the Playhouse after a national tour. We spoke to him about theatre, football and all points in between.

I’ve just been watching the Champion’s League Final and realising what I like most about sport is the epic theatrical stories that it throws up. What connections do you see between football and theatre?
Bertold Brecht said theatre had everything to learn from football and that in general football had the more lively audience! They are of course practically the same for the spectator, the battle between two sides for victory and the end unknown so we live in total suspense until the final denouement which makes it either a comedy or a tragedy. I count seeing Forest at times as amongst my great theatrical experiences.

What did Brian Clough mean to you before you wrote the play?
I never met Brian but watched him, as so many of us did, from the stands. To me he was the true working-class hero, a man who hated authority, passionately loved his art form and took no crap from anyone. Given that he also had immense talent and was one of the funniest men ever after Les Dawson, he got my vote.

How has the play been received in other cities?
It takes time for the audience to realise it’s not simply for football fans and in each city the audiences have built amazingly towards the end of the week. Old Big ‘Ead is a legend throughout the land and the play requires no special knowledge to enjoy it.

Was the play aimed at a football or a theatre audience?
The answer is very simple… Both. From the very beginning the director Alan Dossor and I set this as our target ambition, and the figures are amazing. Over 60% of the audience had never been in the Playhouse before, but the regulars also came and both sides enjoyed it together.
To me it seems the two people most responsible for putting the city on the map are Brian Clough and Robin Hood. Which one do you think best embodies the Nottingham character?
As Robin and Brian are the subjects of the play I can’t really tell them apart. Both iconoclasts, both for the people, both unstoppable fighters and both great team leaders. In the play Brian claims Robin may even have invented football.

Did you have a good time at the Gala performance (for the Brian Clough Statue Fund) the other night?
It was nerve-wracking. There were great players there who are mentioned in the play and of course the Clough family, who have been so supportive throughout the process. But the pie and peas after were brilliant. It was extraordinarilly moving.

What do you think to the dramatic scene in Nottingham?
I want to see this town going for City of Culture, becoming the national City of Literature, with it’s history of plays, myths, folk tales of Robin Hood, Byron, Lawrence, Sillitoe, and many others. There’s a really thriving group of young film-maker and writers (inspired by Shane Meadows, old hands like myself, Mick Eaton, Billy Ivory and younger talents like Amanda Whittington, Andy Barrett, and many others). The Theatre Writing Partnership led by Esther Richardson has made a vast distance, as has the Playhouse’s increasing shift to new writing, both local and national. Then there are the new writing companies like New Perspectives, Tangere Arts and others. It’s ready to become a scene, as Liverpool was in the sixties. The place is teeming with excellent actors, designers, directors. What it needs is a successful university performance course feeding energy into the scene, a major independent studio space, a central meeting point for writers and actors, workshop developments and support and the whole city to join the celebration. Sorry, you’ve touched a nerve with this one. We have such talent, and we should really be nurturing it.

Would you consider writing a play about Jimmy Sirrell for Notts County fans?
When I was six my dad took me to County and left me behind the goal mouth. He vanished off to the pub and forgot about me. I don’t hold that against County, but I’m afraid I haven’t been back since. But once the therapy kicks in, I’d be happy to consider a commission!

Are they any other local characters that you find particularly interesting?
I’m obsessed by Nottingham and its characters. I’ve written about Torville and Dean, William Booth, Ned Ludd (the leader of the Luddites) and Byron (who was their only political supporter and a major hero of mine). I’ve written about DH Lawrence on numerous occasions. My film Flea Bites was about the show people at Goose Fair. The history of the town is an endless fascination with me.

What advantages does living in Nottingham have over living in the Languedoc?
It’s my home town and every street has memories and stories to tell. But the wine’s cheaper in the Languedoc.

What are your favourite places in Notts?
I walk my plays (and talk to myself) around Colwick Park and have a chat with the swans. Shaw’s bar has become my unofficial office. Whoever does the flowers at the Arboreteum should get an award.

Are you looking forward to the World Cup? Do you have a tip for the final?
The last performance of Spirit is on June 10 and the company are coming round to see England’s opening match in the afternoon. I probably won’t move for the month, except to go to the fridge. My tip for the final is make sure the fridge is full.

Is there anything else you’d like to say to LeftLion readers?
This town gets a lot of bad press. Keep the joy alive!

Old Big ‘Ead in The Spirit Of The Man is at the Playhouse until June 10.

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