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Playwright Jane Upton on All the Little Lights at Nottingham Playhouse

7 February 17 words: Molly Coffey

Back up Notts way after a long sojourn down south, playwright Jane Upton returns bearing a heap of plaudits and some daring productions that delve into the darker parts of society. We caught up with her for a word or two…

photo: David Hammond

If someone casually asks you, over the rim of their coffee cup on a bleak Thursday morning, “Have you ever had a time when you feel there’s no floor, no walls, no ceiling and you feel like you’re falling – you don’t know where you’re going to land, and anything could happen?” they’re probably a playwright, or a poet, or a really good blogger. Seated at the creatives’ lunch-break heaven, Kiosk in Cobden Chambers, I’m taking heed of the wisdom being imparted on me of a woman who is all three.

A sea of doubt and confusion is how Jane Upton remembers 2011, when she broke away from her home town in Nottingham following the death of her grandmother. She quit eight years of marketing, left a long-term relationship behind and, completely alone, moved to the Isle of Wight to write her second play. Her first, Bones, was considered the must-see show at The Fringe according to The Stage, and had only just “poured out onto the page”. It was not long before this Most Promising Playwright (George Devine Award) bagged a RADA writing course and went to The Fringe again.

Five years later, Upton is back in the city she calls her “writing formula”, but her craft is not the only thing she’s nurturing. Now she has a husband and a baby. Oh, and just when you think her life could not be busier, play number seven, All the Little Lights, is on the verge of publication and a UK tour. “It’s the first time a play feels finished,” she says. “Of course, as an artist, nothing you produce will ever truly be complete, but when something is published, or filmed, it exists on its own. So far my work has just been on the stage. With theatre, it’s on and it’s gone – I guess that’s the beauty.”

Is she writing for people who’ve been to the theatre before? “Well, I didn’t used to go to the theatre. A lot of people just don’t reckon it’s their ‘thing’… I’ve got close friends who haven’t even seen any of my plays.” When asked about her writing process, Upton says, “I don’t just start with a blank piece of paper: I travel, listen to the radio, I’m dumping stuff onto the page throughout the day. Obviously you do have to sit down one day and start the dialogue, which is still scary. I’m learning that establishing the play’s conventions before all of that is helpful, something the RADA Stephen Jeffreys writing course taught me.”

Upton had never learned any of the so-called ‘rules’ of theatre before she started writing, and so never knew she was breaking them. Her raw talent was not stifled by too much information, or the worry of what the theatre world might make of her. As she says, “There are going to be people who hate what you do and of course you worry about people liking your work, but I’ve realised if you just write something good that people can connect with and be authentic, it doesn’t matter.”

However, it turns out the theatre world loves her. All the Little Lights was called “truly extraordinary and moving theatre” (Nottingham Post) when it previewed in 2015. It is an examination of the victims of sexual exploitation in reaction to the Rochdale and Rotherham cases. After linking up with Fifth Word, an associate company of Nottingham Playhouse, and the charity Safe and South, Upton discovered victims of this nature are not properly supported past the age of eighteen. “Helping a vulnerable person isn’t straightforward. The play highlights that it’s not as easy as just saying ‘Hey, let me give you support, here are some alternatives’.”

“[A victim’s] route is often prostitution,” she explains. “It is common for them to become perpetrators and groom other girls.” Taking the mantle for this story is a pretty big responsibility but Upton is incredibly unassuming, although she has past experience with these issues. “I went to school with a lot of troubled people, I knew people in prostitution and homeless living on the streets. They were a part of my life, they’ve stayed in me. Same place and time, but a different world.” She did not speak to any victims directly in researching her play, but dug deep for a long time, and hopes to have served these people with complete honesty.

The trailer for All the Little Lights invites us to a birthday blowout on the railway tracks. Joanne, Amy and Lisa spout truths, balance precariously on the rails and swig straight from the bottle. It cannot be random that the play takes place on a railway track – a classic symbol of journey, change, growth… “and escape,” Jane points out. “The whole time, you’re willing the girls to take the opportunity and get out of that world. The stakes are high and the play is a pressure cooker but it’s truly about deep friendship,” she says passionately. “They share an experience that only they will ever understand and that’s the beauty in them being together, but it also brings about destruction.”  

What is it about theatre, then? Why is it special? How can it galvanise and make genuine change? “I’ve got to say something clever now, don’t I?” she laughs, but her devotion is unquestionable. “I hope this play makes people kinder, more open to understand the human condition and difficulties people have to go through.”

We all know theatre has the power to move people and ask questions about the world we live in and there is no doubt Upton has arrived among theatregoers as a voice for those unheard and forgotten by our society. However, this writer has dreams beyond preaching to the converted. “We have got to reach out to everyone.” She shakes her head, “People think ‘I will lay this piece of theatre down in front of this community who don’t usually go’, and presume to get an audience.” Upton admits she does not have all the answers to getting everyone involved in theatre, but I do not expect she is finished with surprising us.

So what has Upton got up her sleeve next? The New Perspective Theatre Company will take a fresh look at Finding Nana at The Fringe in 2017, the play she parked back in the Isle of Wight and is excited to unlock again. “My nan and I would visit the island every summer, so when I returned in 2011 without her, our now broken down and dilapidated hotel room was pretty metaphorical.” Upton’s grandmother Edith suffered with dementia and the play is inspired by Jane’s return to the seaside resort, nostalgic and evocative, on a pursuit to see the world through her nan’s eyes. “It’s about losing the first person you love, and now having had Edi – who I named after my nan – I feel like this journey has come full circle.”

Since moving back to Nottingham and building a home here with her husband and little girl, if she was ever falling, she has landed safely. You might spot her, wandering the streets, getting inspired for the next story she wants to tell. It must be hard, I add, balancing playing mum and playwriting. “Some people have a personal and professional mindset but I can’t compartmentalise my life,” she says. “If you’re a writer, it is you.”

Upton sounds so lyrical on paper, but she is one of the most plain-speaking, honest people I’ve had the chance to meet. In spite of all her success, she has retained a realness and surrounds herself with what she considers to be most important, family. Upton is a role model for aspiring writers, young working mothers and an example of how to turn fear and uncertainty into a fuel for brilliance.

All the Little Lights, Nottingham Playhouse, Tuesday 7 - Saturday 11 February 2017, £12/£10.

Jane Upton website

photo: David Hammond

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