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Brief Encounter With ... Playwright Carol Bunyan

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In 1981 Carol Bunyan wrote Sorry, a ground-breaking play about sexism in the workplace that prompted rave reviews, debate in the House of Commons and even a murder threat from a man claiming to be the Yorkshire Ripper.

Thirty years on, her new play The Company of Strangers, which opens tonight (31 August 2011) at the Courtyard Theatre, is set in a nursing home, an environment rarely portrayed in theatre and particularly topical in light of recent scandals.

Billed as "a surreal, heightened, black comedy, more 'personal' than 'political'", it continues until 25 September.

Thirty years after you wrote Sorry, do you think anything has changed?

Sorry was a political play. This play - The Company of Strangers - deals more with the personal than the political, examining the bizarre and often painful lives of the staff who work in a nursing home. Very little has changed in the way that we care for our elderly, there are still shameful examples of the old and the infirm receiving terrible treatment, but rather than being an expose of nursing homes, I wanted to examine the difficult choices that families make, and follow a group of people who have reached the 'sell-by date' of their lives, people who had such dreams of how their lives would be and, like most of us, face the compromises and failures of an ordinary life.

What was the inspiration for Company of Strangers?

The inspiration for this play came from the decisions I had to make in caring for my own ageing parents. For ten years I was their carer - my mother had alzheimer's and my father was eventually wheelchair bound due to chronic arthritis. After the death of my mother I eventually put my father into a nursing home as by this time he needed 24-hour medical care. Although this nursing home in no way bears any resemblance to the home in the play, the inescapable fact that he was living 'In the Company of Strangers' haunts me still. The home in the play is a surreal place, the comedy of the piece relishes the absurd and follows the story of the chief nurse - a man haunted by a mistake that has pursued him all his life.

Why do you think there are so few plays centred around 'older' women?

In our society, 'older women' are often invisible. The media praises the women-who-can-look-young. Helen Mirren is 66 - well she's not many women's idea of 66. And those women not fortunate enough to have the right cheek-bones or slender figure of women half their age are made to feel that they have failed. Middle-aged women are urged to diet, to exercise, to have facelifts, use botox, anything to deny the true picture of their years. The pressure is relentless. I have always written for so-called 'midddle-aged women' (for example my play Waving - starring Maureen Lipman and Stephanie Cole - told the story of two ignored and forgotten women, and of their revenge).

Is it more difficult writing dialogue for older characters?

For me, writing for the real middle aged woman is a joy - there is so much to say, so much story to be told. Frankly, as a writer, I am not interested in the young and beautiful - their stories are less colourful to me. They have less depth, less texture. So writing dialogue for older characters is a treat.

Do you think the way we treat older members of our society is acceptable?

In the play, the issue of how we treat older members of our society - whether it is acceptable or not - is the thread that winds throughout the story. The two young students (who come to do their work experience in the home) speak for an idealistic world, and question the very existence of nursing homes. But as I found out, through my own experience of having most regrettably to finally put my own father in a home, the choice is never simple. There are no perfect answers.

What are you planning next?

After this play I plan to return to my novel The Choir Mistress which I hope will be published next year.


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