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Originally written for the Guardian.

Captioned and signed performances have become common in theatre, with BSL interpreters and LED displays a familiar presence at the side of the stage. But theatres are increasingly making their work accessible for deaf and disabled audiences in a more creative, integrated fashion and are placing issues of access right at the heart of their design.

Graeae theatre company’s touring production of Jack Thorne’s play The Solid Life of Sugar Water, which arrives at the National Theatre in London this week, imaginatively incorporates live captioning at all of its performances. Birmingham Rep, meanwhile, is preparing to open a new version of Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector with an integrated cast of deaf, disabled and able-bodied performers. Rather than being hidden away, the latter show’s audio describer and sign language interpreters will be incorporated as characters within the world of the play and have been involved in the production right from the start.

Roxana Silbert, artistic director of Birmingham Rep, is enthusiastic about the ways in which creative access can open up aspects of Gogol’s play. “Sign language is great for The Government Inspector,” she says, “because there are a lot of secrets and lies in the play and a lot of people who are saying things that other people don’t understand. So having that second language enhances what the play is already trying to do.”

The show’s aesthetic has been affected in more subtle ways by the access needs of its performers. “Once you start looking at it from the actors’ point of view and what they need to make the stage work for them, actually what it does is make the stage a really interesting place,” Silbert says. The set for The Government Inspector suggests the lobby of a hotel, with various levels accessed by ramps and a lift as well as stairways and ladders.

Graeae has championed disabled artists and accessibility since it was founded in 1980. Those decades of work are now informing new initiatives aimed at improving access and widening opportunities for disabled artists across the sector. One of these is Ramps on the Moon, a collaborative network of theatres being funded by Arts Council England and supported by Graeae to create three new pieces of touring theatre that put disabled artists and audiences at their heart. The Government Inspector is the first of these.

Graeae’s Amit Sharma, the director of The Solid Life of Sugar Water, is also interested in how access can be incorporated in ways that speak to the themes of the piece. Thorne’s play tells the story of a couple attempting to overcome grief and regain intimacy. The whole show is set in the protagonists’ bedroom and takes an incredibly candid approach to relationships, sex and the difficulty of communication.

“Because of the nature of the text and it being very explicit in how it’s describing certain sexual acts, I made the decision very early on of not using British Sign Language,” says Sharma. Instead, captions are projected on to the bed that the two characters share, which the audience see as if from above. “When we were working with the set and the elements of access … we always said there are three characters in the play: there are the actors and there’s the bedroom,” he says, stressing the importance of the design. The prominence of the captioning in this intimate shared space highlights the play’s themes of communication – and lack of it. As Sharma puts it, “to have those words spelt out gives it an extra meaning, an extra layer”.

Within the play, references to the specific disabilities of the performers are incidental rather than integral. “We just went for the actors who felt right for the roles,” says Sharma. After Genevieve Barr and Arthur Hughes had been cast, Thorne made small changes to the script to refer in passing to Barr’s deafness and Hughes’s arm impairment – details that are always secondary within the narrative. “Disability is irrelevant,” Sharma says. “It’s the story that matters.”

The Solid Life of Sugar Water was staged at the Edinburgh festival last summer where it was one of many shows representing a game-changing year for disabled artists at the fringe. It prompted audiences and theatre-makers to think about accessibility in different ways. This kind of work, however, requires support. In addition to the backing of the Arts Council, which has awarded £2.3 million of funding to Ramps on the Moon, Silbert stresses the importance of safeguarding schemes such asAccess to Work. “It is about performers who have specific requirements being able to get the Access to Work support they need,” she says. “That’s where the problem is going to lie, not in theatre funding.”

Photo: Patrick Baldwin

Jack Thorne: Everyday Heroism

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Jack Thorne has a habit of apologising. “I’m so sorry,” he says again at the end of our phone call. “I hope you don’t have to transcribe this, because if you do it will just be a load of ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’. It’s just the way my mind works.” Conversation with the writer travels at the swift pace of his thoughts, hopping rapidly from one idea to another, peppered with insistent “you know”s. Listening back to the feverish speed of Thorne’s speech, I can begin to understand the personality that drives him to write for ten hours a day, six or seven days a week. “Sorry, I’m not very eloquent,” he interrupts himself to say at another point. He prefers writing, he explains.

Although Thorne’s addictive passion for writing was born partly out of a frustration with talking – “I think I started writing plays as a way of expressing the things that I couldn’t say,” he writes in the introduction to his first volume of plays – his characters often suffer with a similar struggle to say what they mean. Bookending his Plays: One, both When You Cure Meand Mydidae revolve around relationships in which the right things are never quite said; in the collection’s two monologues, Stacy and Bunny, the protagonists’ alienation is compounded by their inability to talk honestly to those around them. Even in Thorne’s most recent play Hope, whose cast of local councillors spend most of their lives talking to the community they serve, the right words are not always forthcoming.

“I feel I spend most of my life feeling quite guilty about things I should have done or things I should have said,” Thorne says, suggesting that this guilt colours all of the plays in his first collection. The other theme that these plays share, he posits, is that of help and everyday heroism. “I am someone who wants, as we all do, a better world, and I’m constantly looking for people that will lead me there; I’m a follower, not a leader. So I think my plays tend to be about someone looking for that: looking for heroes, looking for help, and what help means.”

In When You Cure Me and Mydidae, both close studies of bruised individuals trying and frequently failing to help one another, that theme is explicit. “If they could only be different people then they could be OK,” Thorne says of the characters, “but they’re not, they’re stuck with being the people that they are.” The lone speakers of Stacy andBunny, meanwhile, are people who desperately need help and aren’t getting it. Thorne describes Rob in Stacy, one of the most unsettling characters he has written, as “someone that’s drowning and is constantly looking for help from anywhere and is destroying himself and others in looking for it”. But for Katie, the mixed up eighteen year old at the heart of Bunny, he holds out more hope. “I think Rob’s pretty lost, Rob’s not going to get there. I think he’s screwed. Whereas I hope she’s on the way to getting somewhere.”

After the microscopic and self-declaredly personal focus of these earlier plays, it’s easy to seeHope, with its more ambitious and expansive look at local British politics and the state of the Labour Party, as a gear change. For Thorne, though, the play made him feel “more personally on the line than I ever have with anything in my life”. Thorne has been a member of the Labour Party since 1996 and grew up in an environment where politics formed an important facet of everyday life – “I spend a lot of time amongst political people,” he explains – making the subject matter closer to the heart than might immediately be obvious. Thorne was also nervous about Hope, he adds, because politics is a topic that naturally provokes disagreement.

“When you’re writing something that’s quite small and set in a bedroom and you’re just going ‘this is how I feel about the world’, people can’t really deny you your right to do that. Whereas when it’s about the state of a political party and how it works locally and all that stuff then you feel people can, because everyone’s going to have a different opinion of that and everyone’s going to have a different experience of that, so you feel very vulnerable.”

That perhaps explains why, despite the strong presence of politics throughout his life, Thorne has tended to avoid explicitly political subject matter in his plays. The other exception is 2nd May 1997, which Thorne describes as “a play about political people” rather than a political play per se. It follows the night of New Labour’s landslide victory through a triptych of two-handers: a Tory politician and his wife facing election defeat; a drunken post-Lib Dem party liaison; and two teenage Labour supporters blinking in the light of a new political future. “It felt for me like there were personal stories to be told from that night,” Thorne says, adding, “I’m always as interested in the personal as the political.”

Hope, which featured in the Royal Court’s “revolution” season at the end of last year, might be read as the bitter sequel to the anticipatory final act of 2nd May 1997. In spite of its title, it’s a play with an awful lot of pessimism about the current predicament of both local government and the Labour Party. But when I suggest that my stubbornly optimistic reading of the final scenes is just a product of my own tendency towards idealism, Thorne protests. “No,” he says, “you’re a romantic. I’m a romantic, I like that.” He admits, however, that getting the ending of the play right was “a real struggle”, and that he’s still not sure if the closing injection of hope is justified. “Would you really want him to be the dawn of a new age?” Thorne asks of Jake, the precocious, outspoken councillor’s son who offers a shred of optimism at the end of the play. “I’m not sure you would, because he’s a pretty messed up kid. So I don’t know. I like things that end with a question mark and not necessarily a full-stop.”

Jake in Hope is just one in a long list of confused and often troubled teenagers in Thorne’s work: Rachel and Peter in When You Cure Me, the schoolboys in the final scene of 2nd May 1997, Katie in Bunny – not to mention his screenwriting work on shows such as Skins, The Fades and Glue. What is it that the writer finds so compelling about the teens? “It is a time when people are made,” Thorne says, “and that feeling of looking at that making of a person is a really exciting feeling as a writer.” His perspective on adolescence, however, has changed since he was a teenager himself, reflecting the gloom of the current political moment. “Generations have spent their lives feeling like they’re on the edge of doom. I think the thing that makes this generation specific is there’s so little optimism, it seems. So little optimism personally as well as politically. I meet young people and their expectations of life are so low.”

His fascination with teenage life is something that Thorne shares with Simon Stephens, who taught him on the Royal Court Young Writers’ Programme. Discussing Stephens’s influence on a whole generation of British playwrights – Thorne laughingly characterises him as being “like a giant Buddha” – the younger writer remembers the party that was thrown when his mentor left the Royal Court in 2005. “It was an impressive bunch of young people there,” Thorne recalls. “Playwrights never go to any parties ever, they avoid parties like the plague in my experience, but it was full of people who just wanted to say thanks to him.”

Also like Stephens, Thorne relishes the collaboration offered by theatre as an art form, but he prefers to limit his contact with the rehearsal process. “What I don’t like is being in rehearsal, I’m not really a rehearsal type of writer,” he says, describing himself as a “very unhelpful” presence in the room. “I don’t write books because I like collaborating, but I’m a better silent partner than I am a vocal partner.”

One of the other reasons Thorne tries to remove himself from the rehearsal room, he tells me, is because he has such a clear and detailed picture of each play in his head. Only by stepping back can he allow other collaborators to put their stamp on it. Encountering the texts inPlays: One for the first time on the page – I have to admit to Thorne that I’ve only seen performances of his later work – this detail is immediately clear. Although he has “a lot of admiration” for writers who are spare with their stage directions, Thorne describes his approach as “trying to present as many pictures to the world as possible”. “Which I suspect makes reading them easier,” he says, “but I’m not sure makes staging them easier.”

In the past, Thorne has spoken about how he finds writing for the theatre much more of a challenge than writing for the screen. When I ask why, he suggests that it comes back to his interest in the small. While he stresses that screenwriting isn’t easy either – “it still fucking makes my hair fall out” – in film and television “there are always ways of getting dynamism and beauty and all those things you need technically in order to be able to tell a story”. In the theatre, on the other hand, “capturing that slightness on stage is a really tricky thing to do and I frequently fail at it in a way that I don’t with screen as much”.

“I’m constantly trying to think larger,” Thorne adds, but he keeps finding himself drawn back to the small and intimate. “That tends to be my fetish as a writer,” he says, musing that it might once again have something to do with help and heroism. “Heroism is often in the small, isn’t it?” he says, sounding pleased with the idea. “Capturing those tiny moments when someone’s life changes – that is the thing that excites me.”

Hope, Royal Court Theatre

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Local politics isn’t sexy. It’s the support crew that cleans up while the rockstars break out their set list of strained smiles and hollow promises on the next main stage. I still remember, as a child, my dad frustratedly filling us in on the council meetings he attended as a school governor; the high point, if I recall rightly, was a farcical dispute about bins.

Hope, therefore, is not particularly promising as a theatrical premise. A local Labour council struggles to make budget savings? Not exactly thrilling. But actually, Jack Thorne’s play feels like the perfect drama for the present political moment. In the context of the Royal Court’s revolution themed season, it might not be the most rousing call to arms, but it depicts the possibility for change on a level that actually feels within reach. It makes politics ordinary, turning its gaze on the crippling everyday impacts of austerity in a way that most national politicians seem incapable of imagining.

Thorne’s councillors are in an impossible position. With £64 million of savings to make by 2017, it’s a miserable matter of deciding on the marginally lesser of many evils. Should cuts be made to care for the elderly or the disabled? Where can savings be made on Sure Start Centres? As for the local library and museum – forget it.

Thankfully, though, Thorne’s play is not all hand-wringing budget meetings. At its centre is deputy council leader Mark, a tortured would-be idealist who is desperate to be a good man in dire circumstances. After his similarly tormented turn in Utopia, Paul Higgins seems made to inhabit characters crumbling under pressure, hair more dishevelled by the minute and body curling up further and further into his suit jacket. Compounding the difficulty of the cuts, Mark’s ex-wife Gina (Christine Entwisle) gets wind that her day centre for the disabled is going to be slashed and mounts a big, social media-savvy campaign, while his relationships with precociously intelligent son Jake (Tommy Knight) and fellow councillor and sometime lover Julie (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) come under increasing strain.

Like Mark, everyone on the council wants to “do the right thing” – a phrase that becomes more and more fraught as the play goes on. Never was there more proof that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Stella Gonet’s Hilary is cool and pragmatic, but beneath her armour she’s utterly committed to the town she serves, as is well-meaning, unassuming Lata (Nisha Nayar). At the more idealistic end of the scale are Julie – who also has to juggle the expectations of her council veteran father George (Tom Georgeson) – and recklessly principled Sarwan (Rudi Dharmalingam).

It’s the latter who acts as the catalyst for change, urging his fellow councillors to take a stand. Sometimes, though, principles come at a high price. The fate of the council serves to animate the precarious balance between what is right and what is pragmatic, highlighting the complexity of the decisions currently faced by local government. The choice seems to be a bleak one: either make devastating cuts yourself, or have others make even worse ones for you.

Thorne also turns his attention to the wider predicament of the modern Labour party and the erosion of solidarity by Thatcherite principles of individualism. In a slightly clunky but politically perceptive speech, former council leader George mourns the death of the party he has dedicated his life to and the political fervour that seems to be in retreat: “Idealism is dead. Solidarity is dead. It’s been destroyed by pragmatism and hatred and shame.” At the same time, though, there’s something freeing about this dissolution of past touchstones; “we don’t represent anything any more,” George observes, so perhaps now is the time to make bold decisions for the better.

Theatrically, Hope is not about to set pulses racing, but its plain, sober style feels just right. John Tiffany’s unshowy production contains all the scenes within Tom Scutt’s meticulously realised town hall design, its drab detail a constant reminder of the realities these characters are working within. No giant ball ponds here; this form of political rebellion is not fun (as Russell Brand famously promises) but hard and boring, as real change often tends to be. Revolution is just as likely to be a long slog as a sudden spark of action.

There is, at times, a slight tendency to use characters as mouthpieces for debate. George in particular feels a bit like the weary, battle-hardened voice of old Labour, while Mark and Hilary’s conversation about the advantages or otherwise of principles acts as something of a gloss on the council’s choice of course and its consequences. But however contrived, Hope‘s conclusion somehow, quietly yet insistently – and against all odds – engenders the sentiment of its title. Change probably will be slow and frustrating and involve a hundred painful compromises along the way, and it will probably have a lot more to do with bins and libraries and day centres than the Russell Brands of this world would have us believe, but there’s still the possibility that, if we just try, we might begin to make the world a better place.

Jack Thorne

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Originally written for The Stage.

One of the first things to emerge from conversation with Jack Thorne is his compulsion to multitask. “If I’m not working on at least two scripts at once then I stop sleeping,” the playwright and screenwriter tells me, his voice charged with a jittery energy that makes this easy to believe. The circumstances of our interview are testament to this need to always have more than one project on the go: Thorne is speaking to me over the phone from the set of his latest film in Majorca, while he prepares for the start of rehearsals for his new play.

“If I’m working on just one thing I’m not a good writer,” he says by way of explanation. “When I run into problems, the scene that won’t end or the element of the story that won’t make sense, I’ll just spend a week walking around my house. To be able to swap onto another project and go ‘I know how this works’ saves me every time.”

Multitasking has also informed Thorne’s diverse writing career, which spans from television dramas such as This is England and The Fades, both of which won him BAFTAs, to a recent adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Physicists for the Donmar Warehouse. “There was no deliberate plan,” Thorne admits of his career path, “it all just sort of tumbled out.”

It is almost impossible to discuss Thorne’s career trajectory without mention of the small phenomenon of Skins, for which he was one of first writers to be recruited by creators Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain. While Thorne is immensely grateful for this experience, describing Elsley as “generous and brilliant”, the show’s popularity inevitably meant that it became attached to his professional identity. “There was a while when it was just Jack Thorne, open brackets, Skins, close brackets,” he laughs.

Thorne has since been able to break away from this exclusive association, partly through screenwriting departures, such as his segue into the supernatural genre with BBC Three series The Fades, and partly through his work for the stage. Although one of his earliest writing experiences was the Royal Court Young Writers’ Programme, Thorne continues to find theatre the toughest of the mediums he writes in: “I find that if I’ve been writing a lot for telly or film and then I try to write for the stage I really can’t do it, I can’t remember how it works.”

This difficulty was intensified during the writing of his latest play, Mydidae, a commission by new writing company DryWrite that issued Thorne with a peculiarly specific demand. “They just said we want to do a one act play in a bathroom, what have you got?” The result, premiering at the Soho Theatre in December, morphed into a full-length two hander that Thorne found “somehow liberating” to write. As he speaks about the challenge of adapting Dürrenmatt – “the extraordinary thing is that the more you unpick him the less you realise you can unpick him” – and admires Alan Ayckbourn’s tactic of setting himself rules before writing, Thorne creates the impression of a writer who thrives under creative constraints.

This makes his latest project with DryWrite a perfect fit. As a writer acquainted with film and television, which offer the constant possibility of cutting away to sustain narrative dynamism, the charge to confine a whole play to any one room is a challenge for Thorne, but the bathroom is a particularly tricky space due to its inherent echoes of loneliness. “It’s a place you go to on your own,” Thorne says, “you don’t really share it”. To negotiate this difficulty, he has filled the space with just two people, a couple in the throes of a nightmarish day whose relationship “builds to a pitch”.

Alongside the specificity of the setting, Mydidae has also offered Thorne the opportunity to write for a particular performer, DryWrite’s co-artistic director Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Describing that process, Thorne speaks of Waller-Bridge’s “rhythm”, a word that repeatedly peppers his understanding of writing for theatre. “She’s not quite Christopher Walken, with that level of distinctive rhythm, but there’s a sort of joy to how she talks and trying to capture that rhythm was a great thing.”

This habit of speaking about theatre like a musical score suggests a certain sensitivity to the idiosyncrasies of playwriting, a sensitivity perhaps informed by the contrast with his writing for the screen. This sensitivity is contradicted, however, by a confessed inability to think about an audience’s reaction while writing. Recalling an interview with screenwriter Melissa Mathison, Thorne mentions her working relationship with Steven Spielberg, who would constantly be asking her about the experience of the audience. “That’s why he’s such a genius,” says Thorne with almost boyish admiration. “I don’t have that ability, I don’t think about an audience reaction. Instead it’s what I’m thinking, what I can see, what that feels like.”

It’s a quiet undermining of his way of working that is typical of Thorne’s tone throughout our discussion. Despite his clutch of writing awards and his current foray into film with an adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel A Long Way Down, the writer often comes across as tentative, grateful for but slightly baffled by his own success. Ultimately, Thorne suggests, his fierce work ethic is simply a way of restoring self-esteem.

“Some writers are blessed with real confidence in what they do and how they do it. I don’t really have that, so I need to be able to restore my confidence at regular intervals – almost daily,” he says. As well as fighting insomnia, “having two projects on the go at once is a way of doing that.”