Last year I happened to be in a ticket booth in Leicester Square. Behind the counter was a lad wearied by life resting his head on one arm as a queue of ticket-hunters advanced in turn. The woman before me was five foot tall, bearing what looked like an expensive shopping bag from which she produced some show flyers. She slapped one on the desk and barked “Wicked”? Without moving a muscle young lad said “Sold out”. She slid it to one side and produced another: “Jersey Boys”. Without moving a muscle, the young lad said “Sold out”. She produced another. “Spellbinding Astonishing”. Without moving a muscle, the young lad said, “Those are press quotes. The name of the show’s at the bottom”.
For some reason this moment stuck with me and came very much to mind in the last few weeks as we’ve geared up to launch Sign of the Times for a short run at the Duchess.
Born from two yuccas
To the majority of mankind a brand new play, this comedy in fact started life as a one act play. The Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough had a policy of nurturing new writing via the very clever idea of brutally overworking actors during the summer season. Casts already doing three plays, one of which was Alan Ayckbourn’s so probably in itself constituted about 15 plays, were then tasked with performing one of a clutch of new short works over a lunchtime. The associate director Connal Orton had directed a play I’d written at college and passed this to Alan.
The piece was a short comedy about the collapse of a marriage performed by the couple in question and the two yucca plants on the landing of their house. This was inspired by the fact that an actor wanted to be in a play and had a large yucca plant in his room. This root of inspiration – available actor and cheap props – was to be of value sooner in my professional life than I could have envisaged. Ayckbourn, never scared of comic invention, drew the line at having half a cast who were foliage but nevertheless invited me up to have a look at the theatre with a view to writing something for lunchtime. At this time I was green, fresh out of uni, writing a radio comedy series, the odd sketch for Rory Bremner and with only an episode of Minder under my belt. The idea of writing for theatre was still daunting. The idea of writing something short for theatre however seemed a perfect stepping stone.
“This is the studio,” said Alan, sweeping a laconic arm across a cafeteria where 30 pensioners were eating soup and a bap at £1.55 plus tea refills. I nodded, feeling a rising sense of horror that what I was agreeing to write was ‘dinner theatre’. On the station platform awaiting the train back to Warrington, I sat with a Twix wondering how the hell you write such a play. My eye was suddenly caught by a guy on the top of the new Tesco - or ‘TES’ as it was at that point. He was manhandling the ‘C’ into position. I was halfway through a rumination on, “I wonder whether that guy’s career teacher at school pointed at him and said – ‘you, Dunthorne, are cut out for large letter-handling’” when it struck me that a guy putting up giant letters might be a great starting point for pensioner dinner theatre.
Wary of issues over entertainment
As in A Tale of Two Yuccas, there was no particular philosophy at the outset, no dogma, no issue burning a hole in my heart. I was rightly wary of issues taking priority over entertainment, having never seen anything thus approached which I’d enjoyed, and also having attempted it once with a duff polemic about homelessness for a fringe theatre. No, the attractive things about the letters were twofold. Two guys halfway up the side of a building would legitimately have to shout to talk, which would then mean that a café full of pensioners might possibly hear. Also if someone walked onstage with a six-foot-long red letter, then it might be more eye-catching than a bap and they might actually turn round.
I started to write with little more plot up my sleeve than ‘a guy comes out onto a building carrying a large letter’. The fact that one guy probably couldn’t carry this alone created the need for a second character. The fact that this other guy might not be his age, might indeed be young, might indeed by an apprentice on work experience came as a discovery. The fact that the apprentice would change the old guy’s life without realising it emerged unprompted from the page as the two began to interact.
When the play was first performed, I made the trip back to the café to find it transformed into a proper theatre, the audience having finished their baps and the chairs turned round attentively. Of course I felt a total prat - but by that stage a play had been written by accident.
Distant West End memories
The days of Boeing-Boeing’s seven-year run in the West End seem now a distant memory. Even a play which has come in from a subsidised theatre on a Hawaiian wave of goodwill would now consider a re-casting as a totem of huge success. It cannot be that new plays are less strong than 20 or 30 years ago. Perhaps in London as opposed to elsewhere in the country, the audiences for plays have gravitated towards the increasing number of play-nursery theatres, leaving the West End to the rampant jaws of the musical. Maybe this is a natural process of theatrical evolution.
Or it could be symptomatic of what happened in the queue in that half-price ticket booth – that the decline in the playgoing audience is commensurate with the increased influence of the tourist dollar. In this arena, of course, the musicals will always win out. There is a chance that a classic play performed by internationally-known actors could attract non-English speakers on holiday in the same way that a trip round the National Gallery might.
Protecting the art of comedy
But comedy? Sadly, comedy is the most vulnerable in this regard. I know this for a fact seeing press come in from foreign productions of plays and reading with retching horror lines like “we’re going to need considerably bigger buns” re-translated as “we will surely certainly require a far greater size of patisserie”.
The point of having a comedy in the West End increasingly seems to be a gesture of faith, a defiance of odds, a willingness to take risk, a short window of opportunity. In this it forms a bookend with the studio theatre in Scarborough. The writing of comedy for theatre is something that has to be protected and encouraged because, for me, the writers - both of my generation and previous ones - who I most admire are those who have had a mission to create laughter first, and theme second. Or rather, whose mission to distract and entertain has unearthed an issue en route.
It was the emergence of a huge red letter onto a stage that for me unearthed fears I didn’t realise I had about failure and hopes I didn’t know I harboured about happiness. I’d have no idea how to set about writing a play armed with only those themes. And if I did, I probably wouldn’t want to go and see it. No, give me the inventors, the experimentalists. Give me a play with actors in fear of their lives from props, explosions and electrocution.
Maybe we should put that on the top of our leaflet. Maybe that woman in the ticket booth might turn up.
Sign of the Times, starring Matthew Kelly and Gerard Kearns, runs at the West End’s Duchess Theatre from 11 March to 28 May 2011 (previews from 7 March).
Tim Firth’s many other credits include Neville’s Island, The Safari Party and Madness musical Our House on stage; Preston Front, Once Upon a Time in the North, The Flint Street Nativity, Cruise of the Gods, Kinky Boots and Blackball on screen.