Joel Horwood On ... I Heart Peterborough
How did the play come into being?
I was asked by Eastern Angles to respond to the place and people of Peterborough, so I went up there spent quite a bit of time getting to know the place. I started to notice some strange things – for example, I went to a club one night and at one point everybody started dancing to this song called “My Love Won’t be Denied” by Len Boone. It’s an obscure 70s track but the whole club knew this weird line dance, and I thought, ‘what the hell is this?’
So my way into the show was really about exploring what goes on in suburbia and examining the forces of homogenization that operate on all of us as individuals. I really wanted to investigate how we all conform, how we’re asked to conform. I wanted to investigate relationships and how difficult they are to navigate, especially when we’re trying to make sure that we’re different from each other but also completely unified.
Peterborough is not the most obvious choice of dramatic targets
That’s why it was so interesting being asked to think about it. It was really fascinating to be asked to think about what this place is that we often pass through on the train but rarely stop – somewhere that is really about transitions. There’s a line in the play about it being the beating heart of train travel. The idea of these veins of commuters, arteries being pumped into London, pumped up and down the country. That’s when the title started to present itself. There were basically loads of ideas going into this project, but it all came out of one slightly weird night and this slightly weird club.
So it evolved through a fairly journalistic approach?
Yes, it was definitely journalistic because I went around and interviewed lots of people and spoke to them about their town. But there was also just pure research, like finding out about how Peterborough became a new town in 1967 and all of the optimism that brought; it was constructed as a utopian ideal that was ultimately hollow and fell apart. There was also the knowledge that the area around Peterborough is ten metres below sea-level and Peterborough is four metres above. It’s a kind of strange lump in the middle of nowhere - it’s got all of these roads around it and these trains that cut through it, but really it's just a kind of island. So there are all sorts of things that distinguish it as odd.
Would you say your work in general is political?
I would probably say I’m quite a political person. The first political play that I wrote was Mikey the Pikey, but that, like I Heart Peterborough, came out of place. There’s a very rich vein when you look at upwardly mobile people trying to engage in their careers in London as opposed to those people who live their lives in a regional town. That divide has been a rich source in everything I’ve written; it was in I Caught Crabs in Walberswick and it was definitely in Mikey. That was probably why I was commissioned to write about Peterborough. I tried to write focus on two people who are stuck in their hometown and who hate it. It’s much more about people engaging with their limits than it is about people breaking through them.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a small town called Leiston in Suffolk. My parents were teachers, so I’d say we’re more middle class than working class. All of my friends’ families were working class but then there were also a lot of families who would visit for holidays. So as a result I would spend my weekends playing with either the little kids who grew up to work the farm or the little kids who grew up to work in the city. I’d feel like I was always in a very specific place that had this kind of transition running through it. I think that my work is a reflection of that. I’m really interested in place and how that forms who we are, and how we want to escape it but can never really can.
Did you always want to be a writer?
Not at all. I was working in a nuclear power station for a long time and then I ended up going travelling for a few years before going to University, where I didn’t do terribly well. Then I wrote Mikey the Pikey because I had an idea about something I’d like to see on stage. I was genuinely surprised by its success. I never really wanted to be a writer, but now that I’m doing it I’m really delighted.
Who are your playwriting heroes?
First off I would say Enda Walsh. I still remember the first thing I saw that he wrote and it really knocked my socks off; it informed and changed the way that I write. I actually wrote to him and asked him if he could mentor me, and he agreed. Really it just meant that we’d go out for a pint occasionally and talk about the weather, but somehow that was wildly helpful. He’s brilliant. But then I’m also huge fan of older writers like Willy Russell and Alan Ayckbourn, who I think are geniuses.
I probably get most of my inspiration from my peers. James Graham, Al Smith and Tim Price and I are really close friends and we tend to go into each other’s work during previews and talk to each other about it, making changes based on what we say to each other. That’s so helpful. Mike Bartlett is another I just think is absolutely brilliant. He’s so inventive with form. And Caryl Churchill I think is one of the greatest living playwrights. I could list names forever. I feel like a fan who’s desperately trying to join the gang.
So what's up next?
I recently worked as dramaturg on Wild Oats for Bristol Old Vic which was great fun, and my next big stage project is doing the panto again at the Lyric. I love writing pantos, picking up those gags that have been around forever, like rolling on a bass drum when someone says "can I have a drum roll please". It's actually the most collaborative form - all the actors come in with their ideas and everybody throws in suggestions for puns. I remember once Simon Stephens' son came up with a brilliant joke that appeared in the show the next day.
I Heart Peterborough continues at Soho Theatre until 20 October.