The dark: a scary place to be. What lurks amid the black, inky, lightless shadows? A large hairy earlobe-nibbling monster? A highly trained hobbit assassin waiting for the opportunity to garrotte your ankles? Maybe even a cast of West End actors eager to ply their trade. In the case of Charlotte Jones’ new play at the Donmar – which, for anyone slightly bemused, is called The Dark – the last is certainly the case. Matthew Amer caught up with the playwright to discuss staging and shopping habits…
As a set is being constructed in the West End to hold Charlotte Jones’ intricately staged new play, Jones’ own house on the sunny shores of Brighton has also been invaded by the builders. Throughout the interview, the banging and crashing of workmen punctuates Jones’ sentences with all the delicacy of a tap dancing elephant.
To Jones’ credit, having already spoken to more journalists than could be found in a pub at closing time, she is still as fresh and happy to talk as if she’d never done an interview before; which is certainly not the case.
The Dark finds three separate families living in a terraced street plunged into darkness when a power cut hits. The three families – a 30 year old man still living with his mother, a couple who cannot name their new baby, and another whose teenage son only talks to strangers – all have their own dark secrets to deal with. In the midst of the power cut they all share a dark problem in the outside world.
"I found the early days of parenthood a huge challenge."
One of the most intriguing facets of the new play is the way in which the three families interact on stage. The innovative set design consists of a grid of rooms – two up and three across – representing the different homes of the families. In theory it is much like an opened up doll’s house but with bigger furniture and dolls that move and talk by themselves. But with each family’s action happening simultaneously, the ensemble cast have to be careful to synchronise movement and speech so as not to confuse each other, speak over each other, or knock each other over in the dark: “One of them said it’s a bit like doing bar work in a ballet class.”
It was the idea of the set that started Jones on the way to the play. The idea of a “terraced street in microcosm” was one that intrigued her. “I was interested to see how split-screen you could get with theatre.” A self-confessed reality TV addict, the voyeurism of peeking into three different homes at the same time proved too tempting an idea to miss.
Jones took inspiration from her own life for much of the feeling and emotion in The Dark. Before moving down to the new pad in Brighton, where she lives with actor husband Paul Bazeley and little bundle of joy Daniel, Jones’ abode of choice was a terraced house in Wandsworth. With baying children one side and little old ladies the other, she knows only too well the problems of living in such confined conditions. “I didn’t know the names of my neighbours. I lived there for ten years and I didn’t know their names until the last two. The burden of knowing who they were was almost as bad as not knowing!”
The birth of Daniel 18 months ago has also affected Jones’ views on life. “I found the early days of parenthood a huge challenge. I found it very difficult. Every time you think you’ve got on top of it there’s a new challenge.” Although not a play about parenthood alone, the act of parenting has a prominent role to play in The Dark. “When I was sitting down to write it I didn’t think ‘right, I must write a play about parenthood’, but inevitably that’s what came out.”
"Marvellously illustrious company, but you just want to write your own thing."
But what about the power cut? That’s not an idea you just stumble upon while groping in the dark, is it? “When I got married in 1998 we had power cuts the whole day, and it was pretty disastrous.” The lack of electricity put the kybosh on a hot meal, the disco and the karaoke – even something as simple as the lighting suffered. In a victory for the blitz spirit the day was saved by a cold buffet and a spot of singing to warm the cockles of the coldest of hearts. “I think the play probably started at that point. What happened to me on that seminal day of my life has influenced it and I was probably just waiting to write a play in which I could have a power cut.”
Having already written Airswimming, In Flame and Martha, Josie And The Chinese Elvis, it was Humble Boy that really brought Jones to the attention of the theatre world. Comparisons began to be made with such luminaries as Ayckbourn and Stoppard – “marvellously illustrious company, but you just want to write your own thing really” – and Jones started to be seen as the future of British theatre. Did the success of Humble Boy surprise her? “I can’t say no, because that’s being completely immodest! When I wrote it I thought it was quite special and I fought really hard to get it on at the National because I thought that would be the best place for it.”
Quite the impact the play – an astonishing blend of theoretical physics and Hamlet – would have couldn’t have been known to Jones. Having won rave reviews at the National it transferred to the West End and became a huge commercial success. It also won a Critics’ Circle award which “was particularly lovely because they are the people we are fighting against all the time to try and get them to like our work.” Its popularity has now gone global, with new productions shooting up around the world like daffodils in spring. To date America, Australia, Spain and the Czech Republic are all in line to receive their own production of Jones’ comedy. It has certainly come a long way from the play’s beginnings. “We were living in this tiny flat and I just wrote it in my front room on my computer.”
Yet having won over critics and claimed success at the home of British theatre, in the West End and on a global scale, Jones’ still feels the twitch of a fluttering heart on first nights. “The first time you put it in front of an audience you don’t know if they’re going to laugh, where they’re going to laugh, if they’re going to be moved, whether it works or not.”
As if having one new play opening at a premier London venue and another success taking off around the world isn’t enough, Jones has also been involved with one of the most eagerly anticipated productions of a year jam-packed with a bumper crop of mouth-watering musical morsels. The Woman In White, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s newest musical, has taken as its base Wilkie Collins’ well-loved novel. Jones’ part in the production was to take the 600 page behemoth, which boasts more narrators than a series of Jackanory, and condense it into an easy-to-follow two and a half hour book for a musical. A tough task for the most practiced of writers, but for someone who had never been involved with a musical and “wasn’t even a big musicalgoer” an even greater demand.
"The thing about writing is, it’s not on tap and you can’t force it.”
Jones’ tone of voice changes when talking about The Woman In White. It gains a lighter, airier quality, less bogged down with the serious nature of drama and more ‘enjoying the moment’. Working with Lloyd Webber – “I think people do him down because he’s successful, and he’s actually a lovely, lovely generous man” – has clearly been an experience Jones has enjoyed and relished. “It’s been the most wonderful job. People say to me that musicals, these big machines, can be a nightmare. Maybe that will start once the production happens, but it’s just been a really happy working relationship.”
But the life of a writer isn’t all fun and larks. Days aren’t spent endlessly sitting under trees with a laptop or pondering the workings of the world or enjoying a coffee-fuelled chat with other like-minded creative types. It would seem that, when you become successful, work actually has to be done. “The problem is, once you start getting commissions – which is fantastic because you earn your living – it becomes a job, like any other job. It’s not sitting with your quill and your inspiration.” One such commission came from the Royal Court before either The Dark or The Woman In White came about, yet is still waiting to be written. Jones found it hard dealing with her chosen topic for the piece, a transsexual girl who wanted to go through the gender reassignment process. “I just found the subject matter overwhelmingly sad. Their lives are so tough, and the choices that they make. I just couldn’t do it at the time. The thing about writing is, it’s not on tap and you can’t force it.”
Throughout the interview Jones is the picture of affability; always engaging, never mocking ridiculous questions, even laughing off references to her acting career – a period of her life she would evidently like to remove from the annals of history. But behind the thoroughly likeable exterior, which would beguile the most cynical of tabloid hacks, she hides the darkest of dark secrets… “I like Waitrose! It has really nice big aisles and they have a system where you can scan your own food so you don’t have to queue. It’s wonderful that you can do that and you’re just in and out really quickly. I try to go to Sainsbury’s and I grew up with Sainsbury’s… but I’m a Waitrose girl now.”