50 Word Reviews: 3 Winters, Bull and Charles III

50 word reviewsWe like theatre. We like words. So here are words (50 or fewer to be exact) about theatre we have seen recently. (Next time we’ll publish them before the shows concerned close and everything).


3 Winters (Written by Tena Štivičić, National Theatre)

Ambitious (if uneven) mix of family drama and national politics that melds a great collection of roles for women with a wooshy set and several heart-pumping speeches about communism. Continues National’s trend of under-edited new writing, but important and moving on a history I feel ashamed for knowing little about.



King Charles III (Written by Mike Bartlett, Almeida @ Wyndhams)

Impressively and unnoticeably written in verse, King Charles III is too predictable in the first half and not challenging enough in the second. Easy laughs abound and much fun is to be had here but flimsy cause and effect and characters mean it feels underwritten. Good populist fun.



Bull (Written by Mike Bartlett, Young Vic)

Slick dialogue, direction and acting doesn’t mask the fact that in scale, imagination and scope Bull is disappointingly slight. Casually, maybe facetiously, bleak (with no possibility for change) I was never going to get on with Bull: humanity is both more terrible and more beautiful than anything on offer here.



(NB: We actually like Mike Bartlett’s work A LOT, but – more messy, complicated, problematic, joyous stuff like Earthquakes in London and 13 please.)

Adventures in planning

Post It NotesSince the beginning of 2014 we’ve been busy doing lots of stuff that I would file under the category of “Things You Don’t Realise You’ll Have To Do When You Decide To Start A Theatre Company”. There’s some stuff that I should have reasonably envisaged (like sorting copy and promotional images and checking contracts and re-designing the website), some stuff that, had I thought about it for a few minutes, I could have thought about existing in some hazy ill-defined way (like funding applications and pitches and commission deadlines) and then there is the stuff that, even when I’m sitting in the meeting talking about them, I have little grasp of the fact that our chosen career path involves us having to do them (company accounts and branding and business plans and, possibly most terrifyingly of all, ORGANISATIONAL DEVELOPMENT).

What all of this stuff has forced us to do, however, is talk. About small stuff like how we express what Write By Numbers does in a single sentence and about the big stuff like how the way we structure and operate the company feeds into the way we make things. It’s also making us PLAN.

One of the PLANS has been about how we use our website and this blog. We’ve come up with lots of ideas (notably the one that got WBN-wide support featured cake) and, beginning this week, we’re going to start implementing them. This blog is going to be a mix of things in the way that WBN is a mix of things; so expect theatre and arts and community and opinions and board games and ridiculous travels with large pieces of furniture and cake. Definitely the cake.

Blueprint – Some Thoughts (Part One)

In just over a week’s time Blueprint will be performed in what is its finished version. That will be almost three years from when I wrote the first lines of the play and there’s probably quite a lot I, as the writer, could say about the time between those two points. But, given the timescale, possibly the most important thing were the reasons why I wanted to write this play – and why I kept on writing it over this period. Some are sensible reasons and some are verging on the ridiculous. They’re all important.

Some things you should know in order for this to vaguely make sense: Blueprint tells the life story of a character named Kate as filtered by her dying brain. It consists of ‘an intro’, forty-four moments (originally minutes) from her life, and a ‘conclusion’. The moments are not linear, though (in our version) we have set an order.

I wrote Blueprint because…

I was set a challenge:

In 2011 I wasn’t doing much any creative writing (though I was doing a bit of arts journalism); I was mainly producing and project managing and didn’t feel like much of a writer. That Edinburgh Fringe, where I was producing a show, general agitator Christopher Brett Bailey set me a challenge: I was to write a play that August. Obviously, I didn’t actually manage to do that because, hello, producing a show at Edinburgh Fringe (and also: all the vodka). But I came up with concept for Blueprint, and plotted out the first fifty minutes and, in November, once I’d finished producing the Edinburgh show’s London run I started writing Blueprint.

I had an image for a play:

It was of a woman on a stage, surrounded by pieces of paper. I knew these pieces of paper had something to do with her identity, and her keeping hold of them was important. I now think that’s maybe a slightly different play, but the feeling that conjured is really important to Blueprint. In Blueprint each moment (as the minutes became) is both part of the jigsaw of who Kate is and the moment that brings her closer to her death.

I wanted to write in styles I didn’t normally get to write in:

The structure of Blueprint, with its forty-four moments, combined with the idea that the play is the product of Kate’s dying brain automatically gives room for different minutes to be different styles. And, in draft one I had such fun with this, parts of the play reading like my list of people who’ve made things I love. There’s a moment that’s a homage to Bryony Kimmings, one for Alan Bennett, there’s a particularly niche homage to Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood, one for Deborah Pearson, one for Ben Moor, one for any performer I’ve ever seen attempt something physically preposterous on stage, a couple which are more ‘spoken word’, and several that are a loving nod to Martin Crimp (but, Attempts on her Life is probably my theatrical bible so in some way I suspect all of Blueprint is a loving nod to Crimp). A good chunk of these exited the play when I realised what I was actually writing about (it took me a mere four drafts, two weeks of workshop development in a theatre and three years to discover this properly). Also, and this bleeds into one of the other reasons (one which I only discovered at the Bike Shed in October), this play is ultimately written by me and not anyone else so it should be written only the way I would write it. But allowing me the freedom to try things on for fit was brilliantly liberating and important for where Blueprint has ended up.

I wanted to write a text that encouraged – indeed demanded – the director and performers play with it:

Blueprint is so-called because it was, right up until the Bike Shed’s print deadline, known by the title ‘As Yet Untitled Blueprint for Performance’. The title has stuck for other reasons (it’s become Kate’s blueprint for her life) but the text itself retains the earlier intention. We’ve chosen particular ways of staging it, but you could make a whole different set of decisions (from how many performers there are, through how lines are assigned, right down to the order of the moments in the play). If Blueprint were to be made available for other people to perform then there’s even some text we haven’t used that would probably go in an appendix, as an optional extra depending on interpretation. It’s incredibly fun – and liberating – as a writer to do this.

I wanted to write a great, complicated, funny, poetic role for a woman:

Because I so rarely see great, complicated, funny, poetic women portrayed on stage in what is termed ‘new writing’. It makes me despair. The last two large scale character pieces I’d contributed words to – Beneath the Albion Sky and Reasons for Listing – gave (I think) two great, complicated, funny, poetic in one case, resolutely not in the other, roles for men. So I wanted to give an even more complicated, unusual role for a woman. Samantha Baines, who came on board having only read the mish-mash first draft, embues Kate with all those things. And, as I love knowing the actor I’m writing for, I wanted to write a character which lived up to all the things that Sam can do.

I wanted to say some stuff about belief:

When I first started writing Blueprint I thought it might be (and don’t snigger here) a performative essay about character and how it’s created, then I realised that was an academic exercise and I’d fallen in love with Kate so I wanted it to be about her and all the things that made her Kate (albeit with the gaps of all the not-knowing we have to do as an audience). The day of the first work-in-progress showing, Andy asked how I was feeling given how much of me was in the play. I batted this away, there were only a few bits of my life in there. Only when I was sat watching the show that evening did I realise what he was actually talking about. Kate and I are very different people but the world view which seeps through the play is one we share. If it made me feel a bit naked, then it’s because Blueprint is me standing next to Kate, working out what I believe alongside her, and then attaching my name to it.

I wanted to learn about lots of things:

The play gave me an excuse to learn about bits of science that I hadn’t looked at since the early part of this century. That multiple people asked me after the work-in-progress showings asked me if I was a Physicist made my year. I’m not by some distance, but I should probably thank my A Level Biology teachers for equiping me with the confidence to think I might be able to understand at least a little bit of scientific thought.

It’s part of the ongoing conversation I’m having with Virginia Woolf:

So, yes, she doesn’t know that we’re having this conversation but that doesn’t make it any less important, because we all have one way conversations all of the time (I remember Carl Barat once being asked if he still had conversations with Pete Doherty and responding “only in the way you do with someone you no longer speak to, only in my head” and I think that sums it up perfectly). I first read Woolf aged 18 and I’ve been talking to her in my writing ever since, though I suspect Blueprint is the loudest conversation I’ve ever had with her. Charlie and I even talked about whether we could get the play’s epigraph (which is from Woolf’s novel The Waves) into the play. We can’t because Kate has never read Woolf so it wouldn’t be in her head. But I have so it’s one of my reasons:

“Life is not susceptible perhaps to the treatment we give it when we try to tell it.”

And in some way I think Blueprint is my trying to find a new treatment for telling it.

EMERGEncy: Assessment of Risk

“I need to do a risk assessment for Reasons.” I announce during our weekly meeting.

I am announcing this, rather than just doing it, because I am a little bamboozled by the task.

A risk assessment for a show isn’t a particularly unusual request. Indeed I once exchanged approximately 74 emails, had three phone conversations, spent eight hours writing risk assessments and had a meeting with the Edinburgh Fire Brigade for an EdFringe show which, for approximately five seconds, had A FLAME in it. As it was, the fire was fine; it was a performer tripping over a (risk assessed) discarded prop that landed us in A&E.

But with Reasons – which, at its base state, consists of one man standing still, telling you a story with the use of some flashcards – the only notable risk is that Andy might give himself a papercut. If I am to start a precedent for risk assessing the possibility of paper cuts for members of WBN then I fear I shall never again have the time to actually be involved in making any theatre.

The meeting turns to what I might put on the risk assessment instead.

“That a small child might put one of the happiness cards up their nose?”

(People at risk: audience. Likelihood: remote. Severity: minor.)

“That Andy might keep in the use of the word ‘fuck’ when there is a child in the room?”

(People at risk: audience. Likelihood: possible. Severity: minor.)

“That…well, yes – the papercut thing.”

(People at risk: performer. Likelihood: possible. Severity: whilst not underselling a papercut, minor)

It is no good, neither Estelle nor Charlie can come up with any plausible risks either. We have made a show where the main risk is getting an audience to commit to having one man tell them a story without the use of any theatrical wizardry other than some flashcards and a drawing Andy did back in 2012, for thirty minutes.

“I’ll…write some words…” I concede. “Now, if this were Blueprint…”

We laugh the sort of laugh that only arises with the knowledge that at some point in the not too distant future someone will ask for a risk assessment for Blueprint and compiling it will make us all cry.

24 hours later I’m assembling the Blueprint props from where I had, with the kind of foresight that probably deserves some kind of chocolate related reward, packaged, separated and labelled post our Bike Shed residency. I realise, just after I’ve pushed the box back in, that I’m missing the stopwatch. No bother, I’ll just lean in and get it out –

My forehead collides with the metal underside of the table.

There’s the flash of embarrassment that I have just headbutted a table in an open plan office and that people might have seen me do this. This quickly subsides though; it hurts too much for me to manage embarrassment as well as pain.

I sit still waiting for everything to stop spinning.

And then, to no one in particular:

“Well, I didn’t risk assess this, did I?”


EMERGEncy: Adventures in Furniture Removal

“I think I want to cry.”

It’s as good as any reaction to the situation in front of us. I’ve spent the last 24 hours in a combination of packing, clearing and lifting. The day has already included a 15 minute riff on the episode in Friends where Ross attempts to “pivot” his sofa up the staircase of his apartment block, only played out with a bookcase that was too large for the lift. Now 70% of the tangible assets of WBN are piled up in the car park of our new office, arranged between a fire escape and a £50,000 car. I am not sure which I am most terrified of: that I shall hit the car with a piece of the MDF I have insisted on us keeping despite the fact that it wasn’t ours in the first place and has no discernible current use, or that we are going to have to carry all of the stuff in front of us up the fire escape.

“Let’s get the worst bit done first.” Charlie suggests.

By ‘worst bit’ I immediately know he means the second bookcase. I say nothing, something which is my life tactic for trying to avoid doing stuff I don’t want to do but know I eventually will have to.

“It’ll be easier once we’ve done that.”

Logically Charlie is correct, the second bookcase is the last piece of furniture which needs carrying up multiple flights of stairs. Once we’re past that we’re back to the MDF, tea and coffee making implements and assorted hats which come with the territory of being a theatre company.

Illogically though, I just don’t want to do it.

However, I think I signed away my right to use that excuse for WBN things at the same time that I entered into the contract, otherwise known as forming a limited company, to do what is right for WBN and not what is right for me.

“Okay. But  – I’m not going backwards up the stairs.” This, it would appear, is as much dignity that I can scrape from the situation.

We’re mid-way up the fire escape before I’ve had time to re-think.

“I’ve just realised -” Charlie says “If I lost my footing now you’d probably fall all the way down the fire escape.”

I stop.



EMERGEncy is WBN’s new weekly look at the day-to-day life of a theatre company (of the ’emerging’ variety).

The shows Estelle is most looking forward to at Ignite 2014

Before writing this I checked my diary from last year, and was shocked to discover I had spent less than 48 hours in Exeter last year for Ignite 2013. The whole thing was such a whirlwind that I am delighted to say I will be around for the whole of this year’s festival! So, how to spend my time? Well, I currently have my eye on these:

The Love Project – Ellie Browning

At our beloved (get it?) Bike Shed Theatre, a piece of verbatim theatre about that most enduring  thing: Love. I missed this at Edinburgh last year and am delighted I can get to see it at Ignite. I remember reading about it and thinking this is exactly the sort of work I am interested in. Real people, real stories and LOVE. Looking forward to it.

The Ballad of Martha Brown – Angel Exit Theatre

Public Hanging in Dorset, during Ignite Festival? Don’t mind if I do. I loved The Ballad of Martha Brown from the talented (and very energetic) Angel Exit Theatre. This story has drama, intrigue, comedy, music and incredible physicality.

Dirty Decadence – Theatre With Teeth

For my third pick I am intrigued by Theatre With Teeth’s Dirty Decadence. Having seen and loved Posh I am excited to see their take on the topic. I have to say I’m surprised this wasn’t one of Charlie’s picks as he set up the company back in 2007.

It has to be said here that I really wanted to pick Gloriator but the darstardly Mr. Andrew Kelly got there first.