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Richard Marsh: 'I'd had enough of love stories for a while'

Playwright, poet and performer Richard Marsh discusses comedy, "screenwriting for the ears" and his new Edinburgh Fringe show Wingman

Jerome Wright and Richard Marsh
© Camilla Greenwell

Could you tell me a little bit about your new show Wingman?

Wingman is one of those comedies with a death in scene one. A father and son haven't seen each other for twenty years when they meet by Mum's death bed. Can they say goodbye to Mum without saying hello to each other? (Spoiler: they can't). The characters discover that no matter how bad life is, family can make it worse.

It deals with serious subjects, but it's very important to me that the audience be entertained. I think that mix of comedy and drama is true to life. The wider world rarely respects your personal emotional tone. Funny things happen when you're sad - just as much as when you're happy. I certainly don't stop doing stupid things just because I'm upset - if anything, the opposite. So I think comedy in sad moments is true in that sense, and also I really like jokes.

Does Wingman blend poetic and dramatic form in a similar way to your previous show Dirty Great Love Story?

It has a similar blend, but the poetry works in a very different way in this show. In Dirty Great Love Story (a story asking: can a one-night stand last a lifetime?) Katie Bonna and I showed the different female and male perspective on all stages of a romantic relationship. In Wingman, it's only my character who gets to give his point of view. He's not exactly an unreliable narrator, but he's a human being with prejudices and assumptions that get challenged during the story.

You describe your narrative technique as "screenwriting for the ears". Could you explain what you mean by this and how you have developed this way of telling stories for the stage?

A screenplay tries to evoke the visual experience of watching the film using words. Screenwriting for the ears is my term for using condensed snatches of poetry to get the audience to imagine the locations the characters visit, a bit like the reader does when reading a novel. If I've done my job right, the audience should be building the set in their minds. I then combine that with dialogue-driven drama.

I came up with it very instinctively - I didn't realise I was doing it in my first solo play, Skittles (a story about love – and sweets, which are more reliable). I think it might have come from wanting to make a piece that felt bigger than I could afford to show representatively. Anyway, when Katie and I began work on Dirty Great Love Story, I consciously realised what I'd been doing. We developed the idea more, so that we'd always begin scenes by planting the audience firmly in a physical space. I'm doing something similar in Wingman, but trying to infuse the settings even more with what my character is feeling at the time.

"If I've done my job right, the audience should be building the set in their minds."

What led you to consider the father-son relationship in Wingman?

I often start with a comic image and then work out the human story behind it. It struck me that your dad trying to be your wingman would be incredibly awkward - and very funny. Dirty Great Love Story took us by surprise. It got such a warm reaction, we ended up performing it in various forms for over three years. After that and Skittles, plus its radio form Love & Sweets, I'd had enough of love stories for a while. (There is a bit of love in Wingman, but it's not the central focus).

Also, lots of my friends were becoming parents. There is an epidemic of babies in London, but I wasn't a father. It felt like a subject I wanted to think about, and the subject matter of Wingman made a natural progression from Skittles and Dirty Great Love Story.

In what ways does Wingman form a trilogy with Skittles and Dirty Great Love Story?

Each piece stands alone and each came about in its own way. (And the second was co-written by Katie and me, whereas the other two are by me alone). But there's a thematic arc - Skittles is about love in your 20s, the early years after university, trying to cope with a crap job, no money, cans of lager clutched in cold-clawed fingers waiting for the night bus home. Dirty Great Love Story is set around the time of turning 30, when lots of people are getting married but you're not sure how to settle down (or even if you want to). Wingman is about parenthood and family. So it's a thematic trilogy, rather than following the same characters.

How much do your theatre performances differ from your performance poetry?

The plays are longer.

There are lots of similarities - most of my poems are stories. I really like stories - in poetry and in music (I love country music). And I find it incredibly useful as a playwright that I can take bits of my plays and try them out at poetry nights before rewriting.

In poetry, the audience will tend to assume that a poem in the first person is about the poet, and that it's true. That's not so much the case in the theatre. (Although a lot of people wanted to know if Katie and I were a couple after Dirty Great Love Story).

Does performing your own work allow you to make new discoveries about it along the way?

Yes, absolutely. I've always been a big rewriter, and one of the things I love about performing is that I can experiment and change things easily, or even write something in the afternoon and put it before an audience that night. However, I also love being able to sit in the darkness and watch actors find things I hadn't imagined in a character. I've had workshops of a new play, Ministry of Secrets, at Bristol Old Vic and West Yorkshire Playhouse this year and it was fantastic to watch the actors and directors bring it to life.

We're in the thick of Wingman rehearsals at the moment, so I'm actually trying to stop being a writer and concentrate on acting. (I sometimes tend to want to rewrite to solve a problem when in fact we just need to rehearse it more). Luckily I've got a great director in Justin Audibert, and the fantastic Jerome Wright playing my dad, so I've got very talented people making the show with me. Jerome's a very good actor, so if I can live up to him I'll be doing alright.

Wingman runs in the Pleasance Dome 30 July - 25 August.