Interview: Stephen Laughton

Stephen Laughton’s previous play, Run, came to our stages a couple of years ago which told the story of a Jewish teenager embarking on his first same sex relationship.  Laughton has returned to our stages this winter with One Jewish Boy – a play about anti-semitism, which in turn has been on the receiving end of a barrage of anti-semitism pushing it in to the national newspapers this November. It’s running at The Old Red Lion Theatre (London) until Jan 5th 2019 and we took this opportunity to catch up with Stephen about this play, what inspired it and why it’s such an important piece.

TW: Accounts of anti-semitism

Interview by Amie Taylor

AT: In your own words, what is this piece about?

SL: It’s set between 2009 and 2018, we start at the end of a relationship between a Jewish man and a bi-racial woman. It charts the relationship from when they first meet in 2009, just after he gets beaten up on Hampstead Heath. But the play largely runs backwards and it looks at how anti-semitism is real in front of them and the growing anti-semitism. It charts what that does to their relationship. The bi-racial woman is light skinned, so both of them are white-passing and have white privilege in their interactions with the outside world, but are still surrounded by racism, which becomes like a pressure cooker for them. 

AT: What inspired you to write this piece?

SL: It was a few things all coming together. I’ve been feeling anti-semitism in a really tangible way, small ways, but in a way that I haven’t seen it previously.  Especially over the past four years. I touched on it in my previous play. We had the war in 2014, and that was where Run came from and things that had happened in that summer.  For example, I was outside the BBC building and there were pro-Palestine demonstrations happening, and I came out and got given a flyer by a lad that was on the pro-Palestinian demonstration and he saw my tattoo and said ‘nice tattoo’ and I said ‘Thanks, it’s Hebrew -‘ and I didn’t get any further before he grabbed my wrist and shouted ‘We’ve got a Jew!’ and it was the first time I felt this instant shame, fury and fear.  I was annoyed at the idiocy of the comment.  And I think that’s one of the things that has continued is that conflation with Judaism and Israel.

I had another experience when I met a former MP from the Labour party, and we got on to talking about my play and we got on to anti-semitism in the labour party and Israel and the conflation between Judaism and Israel. And he told me that Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t an anti-semite, I explained that some of the things he does are slightly problematic and that I feel quite let down by him, for instance releasing a broadcast in which he said he wasn’t anti-semitic on a Friday night, presumably communications managers must have told him if you’re going to give a broadcast to the Jewish community, don’t do it on a Friday night because it’s Shabbat, the fact that he didn’t take that advice was a really stupid move. 

So it’s been inspired by the anti-semitism, especially around the Israel question, as well as things that have happened to me, conversations that I’m seeing. I have these conversations with other Jewish theatre-makers, how we’re often talking about other -isms and -phobias, but never anti-semitism. 

Then I was asked to write a short piece as part of a night, and I’d been wanting to test out and idea I’d had to write a play about anti-semitism, to take these really big scenes and put them in domestic situations.  I also wanted to make them funny as well. Katy from the Old Red Lion came to watch that evening, and wanted to have a further conversation about this piece and writing it in to a full length play. 

AT: What audience are you targeting for this and what are you hoping they will away?

SL: That’s a really interesting question, because I never write with a particular audience in mind, but I got told earlier this year that my audience is queer and Jewish, and in many ways that’s a great audience to have, but it was told to me in a really detrimental way. 

I normally wouldn’t worry about this, though of course as a playwright you’d hope as you develop your career you’d be broadening your audience. So originally in this piece the characters were queer, it was originally two women, but as the piece developed it became clear that the violence wouldn’t work in that setting. A lot of anti-semitic violence towards women is sexual, and that wasn’t a place I wanted to go – so I re-wrote the part as male.  And in the writing it became clear that they should have a child, and I wanted that child to be biologically both of theirs. So the story needed to be centred around a heterosexual couple. 

So I hope it will attract a broader audience due to this broader representation, and I’m hoping to reach an audience that doesn’t necessarily know about anti-semitism. It’s also need it to reach an audience in my generation – you know, under 40s, left-wing, urbanites, who might inadvertently mix up jews and Israel and the politics there. I also hope to change the language around Israel. I wanted to reach that audience to change the language that we use when talking about anti-semitism and jews and Israel. When we talk politics in this country, when we talk about political parties and we blame a person – a political, whether it’s Theresa May, or Corbyn or Jeremy Hunt, but when we talk about Israel, we don’t do that, we talk about Israel, holding the entire country to account, when only about 32% of the voting population in that country voted in their Prime Minister and that policy – yet Jews across the world are being held accountable. So I wanted to really look at that and change that dialogue. 

Book Now to see One Jewish Boy, running at The Old Red Lion Theatre until Jan 5th 2019.

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Review: The Forest of Forgotten Discos

5*
Contact Theatre (Manchester) and Jackie Hagan
This closed at Hope Mill Theatre on the 23rd Dec

Red is nine, and she isn’t scared of anything – and she’s run away from home and into the forest. There she meets Alexa – a virtual assistant built entirely from old technology, who introduces her to some bears: Bear Hug, Bear Minimum and Bear Grills – who each have their own reason for being stranded in the forest. For years they’ve all had discos together, but this year they’ve forgotten how to throw them, and can’t seem to remember why.

The Forest of Forgotten Discos is a totally unique Christmas show: it’s inclusive, it’s a whole lot of fun – and whether you’re a child or an adult you’re definitely in for a great time. From the moment the doors open and Alexa starts scanning the audience, there’s a feeling of togetherness and enjoyment that lasts all the way through (and some pretty great bear-themed dance moves)

There’s a character for everyone, and the actors bring them all to life with fun and dynamic performances that don’t leave anyone out: even as adults sat at back back we were invited to participate and never forgotten about. The story is powerful – it’s not a stereotypical Christmas story about a nuclear family – it’s characters who love one another and have built family together and found a home together – and that felt really special.

It’s also worth mentioning that the set design is absolutely stunning: giant cans of Heinz beans and a forest made of ramshackle pots and pans bring you straight into the world of the play. Furthermore, the costume design was brilliant, particularly the bear costumes, which felt really transportive.

Every performance of The Forest of Forgotten Discos is completely accessible, with sign language integrated into the actor’s performances. It was really cool to see it as a completely natural part of the show and a definite highlight.

The Forest of Forgotten Discos is a really enjoyable show. It’s clever, funny and full of energy – and any show that involves a disco is worth a watch!

© Megan Holland 2018

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Film Review: The Watermelon Woman

Directed and written by Cheryl Dunye
4*

The story is accomplished with few subtleties but it is done with such heart, you can’t help but fall in love. Prepare to go on a journey to unearth the unknown “Watermelon Woman.” A fictional 1930’s black actress who captures the inspiration of aspiring black film-maker Cheryl.

Cheryl is an endearing protagonist who is creating a documentary as much for herself as to kickstart her career. She is hopeful, passionate and her documentary offers us genuine yet opposing perspectives; including her own. From small unassured seeds to emerging as a “black lesbian film-maker” Cheryl does not focus on the struggle. She sees “hope, inspiration, possibility and history.” She sees a bright future. And through her film narrative a tale of identity and empowerment is uncovered.

Written, directed and starring Cheryl Dunye, this unpolished film navigates the white hetro-normal worlds of the 30’s and the 90’s with finesse. The style works well, marrying the different qualities of video and filming. It looks at female friendship and homosexual relationships from a human perspective that is both beautifully depicted and refreshing. It is not sensualized. It is genuine. And funny. Very funny. Allowing the audience to meet so many brilliant characters and be privy to an array of candid moments. But also at times hard-hitting perspectives. Whether it be a white lesbian telling Cheryl that the white and black lesbian history archives are “very separate”, or a black woman questioning the inclusion of a white woman in a documentary about the life of her black friend. Filled with these believable fragments of prejudice that can unsettle the viewer, alongside a heartfelt story that resonates with truth and humor. This is why “The Watermelon Woman” is such an important film.

© Kirsty Blewett 2019

To rediscover The Watermelon Woman in a new 20th Century Edition visit Peccadillo Pictures’ website. 

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Review: One Jewish Boy

5*
Old Red Lion Theatre, London

I took my seat in the Old Red Lion auditorium looking forward to reviewing a queer play for LGBTQ Arts. The lights dimmed and in walked a decidedly heterosexual couple who, for the next eighty minutes, were the only characters on stage. In essence, One Jewish Boy is a very heterosexual play and therein lay so many of the problems for Alex and Jesse as we were shown fragments of their fractured relationship.

This play was strong across the board: Asha Reid and Robert Neumark-Jones gave star performances as the couple. Theirs was a very human story, both having their flaws, but as the drama unravelled Jesse’s trauma and experiences of oppression took over as he failed to process his experiences and became increasingly dependent on Alex to do the emotional work for him. This is sadly a toxic interplay that is all too common in many heteronormative relationships. There were times when I really liked Jesse and could sympathise, and other times when I wanted to tell him to shut the f**k up and to support Alex – that’s when I knew Neumark-Jones was doing a great job. I was blown away by Reid’s ability to portray Alex at different ages and stages of her life – from shy but funny nineteen year old to exasperated businesswoman and mother.

Stephen Laughton’s script is fantastic – he deftly weaves together politics, woke-ness, trauma and love, and only very rarely does it seem like he’s trying to tell us something, rather than just showing us the unfolding of a relationship. The script (which I got a free copy of – yay!) was brilliantly brought to life by Sarah Meadows who directed with empathy and subtlety, given a different handling of of it could have resulted in melodrama. However, it’s here I think there was quite a big difference between the play I thought I was going to see – One Jewish Boy predominantly about Jesse and his experiences – and the one I saw – a play about a couple, both of whom share the stage. To see the former show I needed to see more of Jesse’s backstory and to better understand the traumatic experiences he went through. However, I’m glad I didn’t see that play because for me it was about both Alex and Jesse, so perhaps it could be called One Jewish Boy and One Girl from Peckham. My only other question is why the play started where it did – in 2018 at the breakdown of their relationship – given that it was clear from most of the other scenes that this was always the direction in which things were going. But where the play ended was beautiful and gave me goose bumps.

One Jewish Boy runs at The Old Red Lion Theatre until 5th January 2019. Book Now. 

©Robert H 2018

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Review: First Time

5*
Waterside (Manchester)
This production has now closed.

Nathaniel can’t forget his first time. He’s had it playing on repeat for the last fifteen years.

First Time is HIV+queer artist and activist, Nathanial Hall’s, one man show about attempting to stay positive in a negative world. Nathaniel recalls his first time having sex at the age of sixteen, the shock of being diagnosed with HIV two weeks after his 17th birthday and his ongoing journey.

The play is all about breaking the stigma surrounding HIV – and it’s an honest and emotional play that both explains his experience and expels a lot of the myths surrounding the virus (the best of which were in a fun audience game).

The piece begins with the aftermath of a party – and Nathaniel reading listacals about ancient condoms – and it’s this sense of humour that’s retained throughout the play in a tongue-in-cheek way. He takes the audience to his prom (with a whole load of early-naughties references), shows how he imagines his life could be if he wasn’t gay (a lot of babies); replicates throwing up using cans of silly string; scoffing pills out of a cereal bowl. All of this humour has a dark underbelly – it makes the audience laugh but also reminds them of the seriousness of what Nathaniel has faced over the last fourteen years and the challenging nature of his diagnosis.

Nathaniel’s diagnosis and ongoing survival are a really important part of the play, and in particular it’s celebration of the NHS was well worth considering – how fortunate we are to have the best healthcare service in the world with such high level of care and support. The play also explores Nathaniel’s journey from initial diagnosis through to the management of the virus: how he has learnt to battle and tell his story, how he shared the news with his parents and the sense of hope he feels for the fact that he has survived.

Watching the play on world AIDS day made it even more poignant, and a candlelit vigil added a moment for reflection and remembrance. When the show finished, I spent some time reading comments from the audience – and it was touching to see how many people had found comfort in the story, and one that stuck with me in particular was the comment, ‘I no longer feel ashamed’. First Time is the epitome of why it’s so important that these stories are told, that stigmas are erased and change is put into place.

© Megan Holland 2018

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Review: Drip

DRIP
By Tom Wells
On at The Bush Theatre (London) Until 22nd Dec 2018
4*

‘Gig Theatre’ feels like it’s a relatively new concept, mixing the arts of theatrical storytelling with live music ‘gigs’, but in reality, this blurring of the lines of musical and gig can go back to pieces like John Cameron Mitchell’s seminal Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Although bands and music artists have been mixing visuals and concepts to their shows for years, there seems to be more a move to storytelling and companies like Hull based Middle Child are starting carve out niches in creating new works in this hybrid world. It is hard to place Tom Wells’ new one man play ‘Drip’, although sold a ‘one man musical comedy’ it feels like it dives more into the world of gig theatre. Told through Liam, a 15 year old boy, it places the audience in the role of year 11 schoolchildren and makes for a much more live and immersive event than perhaps a more typical musical. This is not a criticism by any means, it is this active audience role that makes the character come alive and much like Cameron Mitchell’s leading lady, Hedwig, it allows the vulnerability of the character much more space to come out. Liam, played here flawlessly by Andrew Finnigan, tells us about his friend Caz, ‘best friend Caz’ and their journey to create a winning entry for the annual Project Prize at school, which you as an audience are attending. Wells’ writing is so beautifully real and awkward, a style that he has become so well known for in his previous works like My, as a Penguin and Kitchen Sink and whilst dipping his foot into using music in his most recent Broken Biscuits, this feels like a much bigger jump into the form. Along with Finnigan’s subtle and charming performance, the script offers a real warmth and humour without losing the delicate reality of a 15 year old standing in front of a hall full of his peers. What I love about Wells’ work, perhaps more than anything is his constant use of gay or queer characters without bullies and tragedy in tow, which may sound like a silly comment but think about the last time you saw a gay character in theatre that wasn’t dealing with ‘issues’ linked directly to his or her sexuality like coming out, or HIV or prejudice. It is so wonderful to see such a well rounded gay character who is not only ‘proper out’ and comfortable with themselves but also free from harassment.

With music by Matthew Robbins, the songs have a wonderfully amateurish and awkward feel, however it does sometimes feel a little repetitive and although, trying to work with the reality of an amateur songwriting character, I sometimes craved something a little more complex or varied, especially as most kids these days know how to use computer software to compose and record.

Directed by Jane Fallowfield, the piece feels live and in the moment for the most, but every now and again feels a little too well rehearsed considering the context and the ending lacks the stakes needed to really make us believe Liam was to perform his routine (in swim shorts) to a room full of 15 year olds. However, there are fantastic moments of audience interaction, inviting us to wear blue ponchos to become the swimming pool and blow bubbles to represent being under water not to mention the person in charge of ringing a chime lovingly every time we are told about ‘Josh’.

This a small story about an average character in an average world but with Wells’s writing and Finnigan’s performance the story is completely heart warming and wonderfully uplifting.

Book Now

© Harry Richards 2018

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Review: The Maids

4*
HOME, Manchester until 1st Dec

Based on the true crime story of the murderous duo The Papin Sisters, Jean Genet’s The Maids has come to HOME this Autumn in a radical telling of the infamous story.

The Maids is about two sisters, Solange and Clare, who spend their time role playing increasingly sinister ways of murdering their mistress: wearing her clothes and dramatically reenacting the power structures which define their lives.

The play is both surreal and fantastical – the perfect play to pick apart and write about, decompressing the meaning behind it all.

Interestingly, The Maids is centred around playwright Genet. He’s very much present in the production, overlooking the stage in prison garb, the first character we meet in the play. These interventions remove the audience from the action of the play – ensure that the audience remains uncomfortable – and so I found that I started to view the play as something with meaning, as opposed to a story that I was to feel completely immersed in. It’s an interesting presentation – and left me a lot to think about.

The performances across the board are brilliant, and all of the women in the play are played by men. Again, this brings a level of removal between the characters and the audience – allowing the men to present surface level femininity that could be considered as an exploration of female archetypes and of gender. It’s quoted that Genet wanted the play to be presented in this way with an all male cast, and that he saw himself in the characters – and trying to connect him with the characters is fascinating.

The staging is also worth a mention and was unique and impressive. The use of screens and a handheld camera brought the audience in on uncomfortable action: close ups of faces and of moments that felt vulnerable and were unexpected in a theatrical setting; flowers that were weighted down and thrown like darts to litter the stage.

The Maids makes for a really interesting piece. I imagine the surreality might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it kept me intrigued throughout and the layers of story have had me thinking over it for the rest of the week.

Book Now

© M. Holland 2018

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