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The Comedy of Errors

Interview: Michael Pinchbeck on The Ashes

31 August 11 interview: Adrian Bhagat

Michael Pinchbeck is a writer, live artist, performance-maker, and one half of the creative team behind Hatch. His latest project is The Ashes, the story of the infamous ‘Bodyline’ England cricket tour to Australia in 1932-33 that left the game’s reputation tarnished. On the verge of its debut performance at the Playhouse, we aimed a few questions at him - which he batted away with consummate ease…

What’s the story so far?
I had a very distant relationship with drama to start off with; apart from a couple of amateur dramatics plays, I never really studied it until I went to Lancaster University to do Theatre Studies and Creative Writing. In my university interview I spoke about one of my dad’s amateur plays - I like the fact that my way into academia was through amateur drama, and that’s something I’d like to return to. I co-founded a theatre company called Metro-Boulot-Dodo at university; they’re who are based in Leicester now. and we toured extensively for about ten years, winning a Total Theatre Best Newcomer Award in 1999. I left the company in 2004 and came back to Nottingham.

You’re heavily tied in to the Playhouse these days…
I met Giles Croft, the Playhouse’s Artistic Director, when I had just started an MA at Nottingham Trent and was interviewing for the Arts Council and a couple of magazines. I spoke to him about what I was doing, where I’d come from; The Beatles cropped up and The White Album sort of came from there. Nottingham Playhouse has been very supportive since; they have my show The Post Show Party Show, which I perform with my parents, as a mid-week matinee, and they also support Hatch.

You wanted to use the Beatles' music to underscore The White Album, but discovered at a late stage that it couldn’t be licensed. Did the play suffer for that?
In a way it didn't, but it made the intention of the play less visible. I had written the piece to the duration of the album with each scene to the length of that track. Whilst that was lost, the mood remained. Sexy Sadie, for example, was an angry break-up in a restaurant and John Lennon’s LA stuff was where I introduced the Manson Family element. It made it more a question of the interpolation of the music. The issue was not that we were denied rights, as we could play the music from the control box and did. The issue was that I couldn't have a man put the needle down on the record in preparation of him committing suicide. Sometimes people got the wrong idea of what the show was about - it certainly wasn't a tribute show. We had a hen night come one night and I don't think a show about suicide and the Manson Family was what they had expected!

You're one half of the creative team behind Hatch. How did that all start?
Nathan Miller and I met through the Notts arts scene and began talking about performance culture in the region. We were worried that things could start to slip with loss of the Now Festival or Expo. We didn't feel, at that point, that there was a space for artists to try things and be brave, so we wanted to make a space where artists could try things and take risks that wasn't a theatre. I’ve made projects in cars, on benches, in front of Roman walls – there’s something about me that likes working outside of theatres. Now we've evolved: we've worked with artists from all over Europe, and taken Hatch on the road to Skegness and Leicester.

What’s been your favourite Hatch moment?
The very first night, not knowing who would come -and suddenly, loads of people turning up - that was brilliant.  In terms of performances, Megan Tait playing Oh I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside on a Casio keyboard using a fork attached to her head. It was only thirty seconds long, which meant some people missed it, so we made her do it twice.

The Ashes, then; how did that come about?
It was another conversation between me and Giles around 2005 when England had won the Ashes for the first time in a long-time. I said I’d wanted to write something about the Bodyline series, and Giles was interested. It’s been developing for four or five years now.

Why did you use Larwood as your focus for the story?
Partly it was because of the strong local connection, what with both him and Bill Voce coming from North Notts and working in Annesley Pit, but his story is more than that. I wanted to look at that story through a wider lens, especially at a time when we’d just won again I thought that cricket could be something we can be proud of and re-ignite our imaginations. I spent a great deal of time looking through the archive at Notts and found some photographs of Larwood with Gracie Fields looking star-struck or sitting on the deck of the ship sailing over to Australia writing a letter assumedly to his wife, Lois. We explore the way Larwood was treated after Bodyline – being asked to apologise by the MCC. There are photographs of him in his sweetshop after he retired and moved to Blackpool. It isn’t just about the man and the cricket match, it’s about the diplomacy and what happens after the dust has settled.

Do you think there’s much similarity between the stage and the crease?
Yes. I responded to something Douglas Jardine – the England captain at the time – said; “Cricket is battle and service and sport and art”. This got me thinking, this was part of Jardine’s call to arms like a director giving notes to his actors. Equally, it reminded me that the artistry of cricket is still applauded: a balletic catch in the slips, the shaping away from the batsman by a seamer, a well-executed cover drive, they are all things a crowd appreciates much like a performer on stage.

I also spoke in depth with former Notts batsman John Clay, who sadly passed away in February, about what it was like playing on the county circuit in the fifties. He said that he imagined that the nerves he had before going out to bat was like an actor before he went on stage. I was tentative about this meta-theatricality as it’s something that I have used in my other works, but it did get me thinking about this dressing room mentality – the superstitions of players, of having their peg and so on. It was this that started me on the idea of seeing cricket from the wings – one thing I really want to have in the production is lowering down the nets from the flies and having the bowlers running up to deliver the ball but them being off-stage for the release or watching the batting but only seeing the reaction in the slip cordon.

Telegrams are an important part of the play, aren’t they?
Telegrams are used to structure the piece, and are the correspondence between the Australian Cricket Board and the MCC (the Marylebone Cricket Club, who ran the English game in the 1930s). Although very short, clipped exchanges, they tell much more than just the results – they are ‘the story of the play’ which is what used to be the sub-title on newspaper reports of the time. We use them as a framework, but they are useful as an artefact too. Communication is important in cricket as so much of it is relayed through radio and print, which is where much of its language has evolved. I really liked playing with the lexicon of cricket and other period details. Peter Wynne-Thomas, Notts’ archivist, has been a great help - and explained the etymology of the phrase ‘put a sock in it’ too…

So, sum The Ashes up for us.
The Ashes is ‘the story of the play’ – about what happened and what remains through mementos. Larwood kept all of his trophies from the tour, including an ashtray from Jardine inscribed with; “To Harold, For The Ashes, From a Grateful Skipper” whereas, after his death, Jardine’s wife burnt all of his. It’s about what lasts and becomes part of the story. There are real stories for people to access and there’s a great deal for people who maybe don’t know much about cricket.

And what’s next?
I am currently pursuing a PhD at Loughborough University which explores the role I play as a dramaturg, or outside eye, on other people’s work such as Reckless Sleepers, Hetain Patel and Gabriella Reuter. I’m also taking my show The End up to Edinburgh, plus I’m working on a Hatch project called Hatching Plans which will be on in unusual locations in Leicester on the 16 October. We've commissioned Frank Abbott to do some work with us and have Action Hero coming again after their great performance of A Western at the Malt Cross last year. There are going to be ten other commissions which we'll be looking for closer to the date and my old company, Metro-Boulot-Dodo, will be performing too.

The Ashes, Nottingham Playhouse, Friday 2 – Saturday 17 September

Michael Pinchbeck website

Hatch website

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