Originally written for the Guardian.
Playwright Phoebe Eclair-Powell grimaces as she remembers performing at the Edinburgh fringe in her teens: “We were those really horrific kids on the Royal Mile who sing songs and wear costumes and do jazz hands and aggressively flyer you.” Next month, however, she’ll be back at the festival with two new plays, after a third one has run at London’s Soho theatre. “Three shows in two months is really, really stupid,” she admits with a broad, if nervous, smile. “I’d quite like to sleep for all of September.”
The London production is Fury, her updated take on Medea, while her Edinburgh premieres are Torch, about womanhood, and Epic Love and Pop Songs, about teenage friendship. The Edinburgh fringe is familiar territory for her. From a young age, she accompanied her mother, the comedian Jenny Eclair, to the festival. Her mum became the first solo female comedian to win the fringe’s Perrier comedy award in 1995. Eclair-Powell’s own attempts as a performer were short-lived (“I go bright red talking in front of people on stage”) and, after doing an English degree at Oxford University, she joined the young writers’ group at the Royal Court. When she found a job in the building (first in marketing, then as artistic director Vicky Featherstone’s personal assistant), “everything magically fell into place”. She describes her time at the Court as “the best education I could have had”.
While she never wanted to be a comedian – “Jesus Christ, no,” she says with good-humoured vehemence – her mother’s outspoken standup acts were a big influence. “She’s bloody amazing,” she says, adding that she is still the person whose feedback she trusts the most. Watching her mum perform comedy when she was a child helped Eclair-Powell to realise that “there’s a world where adults also play and don’t have to grow up”. She believes comedy is a “really good way of getting across a message” and describes Epic Love and Pop Songs as a “really playful” show that takes audiences into the world of teenagers Doll and Ted. It’s about “your best friend, lying and winery” (white wine and Red Bull, apparently).
Even in Fury, an otherwise dark and angry piece, she balances the rage with humour. “I hope there are still a few laughs in there,” she says, “because I don’t think I can write anything without putting a joke in.” The play is about a single mother, exploring how “that phrase itself conjures up so many images and has become such a stereotype”. While writing Fury, which won the 2015 Soho young writers’ award, she found herself considering how mothers are still “pressurised and judged in a way that fathers aren’t”.
Gender-related expectations are a recurring theme in her work. Her debut, Wink, staged at Theatre503 in London last year, explored the pressures of modern masculinity. Torch, a collaboration with theatre company Flipping the Bird, asks what it means to be a woman today. It was born from an earlier piece which used anonymous surveys to explore people’s attitudes to sex. “We decided we wanted to repeat that model and do it about the experience of identifying as a woman, which was much harder, bigger, more complex,” Eclair-Powell explains. The result is a collage of a show that lies somewhere between play and gig, weaving in performances of songs by, among others, Patti Smith and Miley Cyrus.
Torch’s frontwoman is Jess Mabel Jones, best known to theatre audiences as Tourette’s hero Jess Thom’s sidekick in Backstage in Biscuit Land. Eclair-Powell explains that Jones’s personality has had a real impact on the piece. “She has so much of her own stamp on this show. I’ve had to really wrangle with the script to make that part of it.” She also found herself wrangling with the survey responses. “Unlike the sex questionnaires, which came back as largely positive and funny and embarrassing and gross, these ones came back as being insecure, nervous, anxious, negative, upset,” she says. The play is incorporating these feelings, though Eclair-Powell is adamant that it should ultimately be a “celebration of womanhood”.
Writing Torch has forced Eclair-Powell to confront her own views. “I thought I was a really on-it feminist. I’d grown up as a feminist from a very young age – and I feel like I’m losing a grip of what that means and I’m losing a grip of my own politics.” Acknowledging that it’s impossible to represent all women or speak for the entire feminist movement, she has made Torch “incredibly personal – and that does feel quite exposing”. She continues: “We all build a self that we show to the world and conceal the parts of ourselves that we would rather remain secret.” Torch, half performance and half confessional, “lives in the gap between the two”.
Photo: Sarah Lee.