She has been named one of Screen International’s Stars of Tomorrow, won awards for her debut production and is working on her first film with the makers of We Need To Talk About Kevin, yet speaking to Rachel De-lahay, whose latest play Routes begins a run at the Royal Court this week, you’d be surprised to hear she’d had any success at all.
The Birmingham native whose first show The Westbridge, staged by the Royal Court in 2011, beat Grief by Mike Leigh to the title of Writers’ Guild Best Theatre Play is yet to believe the hype despite commissions, a residency with Birmingham Repertory Theatre and a radio play being broadcast on Radio 4 just minutes after we meet.
Despite this, or maybe because she’s not yet accepted her place among the ranks of professional writers so has no fear about putting anyone’s nose out of joint, she’s more than happy to speak out about her view on Girls writer/producer Lena Dunham increasing illegal downloading by not selling the rights to her hit comedy to a free to air channel, the pointlessness of daytime TV and standing up for ticket pricing you believe in. In fact, she’d be pretty much happy to talk unguardedly about almost anything, which makes for an intriguing, interesting and enjoyable interviewee…
CV in brief:
2010: SW11 (later to become The Westbridge) wins the Alfred Fagon Award for playwrights of African/Caribbean descent
2011: Debut play The Westbridge staged by the Royal Court
2012: The Westbridge named Best Theatre Play by Writers’ Guild
2013: Named among Screen International’s Stars of Tomorrow
2013: Co-writes Peckham The Soap Opera with Bola Agbaje as part of the Open Court season
2013: Routes premieres at the Royal Court
Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in theatre?
I grew up Handsworth, Birmingham. I used to go to a youth theatre that put on plays every term. That was all my knowledge and experience of theatre. I decided off the back of that, with all my naivety, that I was going to be an actress. That was a really serious viable career choice that I massively executed.
Writing came when I found out about this building [the Royal Court]. I liked the vibe and I liked the work they were doing. Then one day, just through searching through the website, I saw the Young Writers Programme advertised and applied, purely just to get in the building. It was either that or be a barman.
Tell me about Routes.
Routes is a play about what happens when you fall through the cracks of our citizenship problems. Young boys come over here and have travel documents that say they’re able to go on holidays to Amsterdam when they’re 18, they’re able to do this and that, they might not be able to go to America on the same passport but they’re not really bothered about that because they can’t afford to go to America anyway, so they don’t really do anything to change it. They can live in this country on that document for as long as they want until they f**k up and get given 12 month sentences. Then they can be asked to go home, it doesn’t matter how long they’ve lived here. It doesn’t matter what your view is on immigration, there are just so many grey areas within that system, that’s what excited me.
What happens when that person has been here since they were three or they were given a 12 month sentence because they were dealt with particularly heavy-handedly? It all just gets a bit muddy.
How are you feeling now, just before the show begins previews?
It’s exciting because it’s going to stand up and be something soon. We’re not sure what because I wrote a play and plays aren’t meant to be read, they’re meant to be watched. So we’ve cast it, someone’s directed it, someone’s put in a brilliant lighting design, sound design, set, then it’s going to become something and I’m not sure what that is yet, but at the minute it could be brilliant. So it’s quite an exciting time.
How’s life changed since success of The Westbridge?
I’m blagging it massively. That’s one thing drama school taught me, just act confident, act like you know what you’re doing. If they trust you with the job, that’s hilarious. I’m waiting to be found out. I keep my head down here so much because I’m waiting for someone to say “How the hell has she done this?” Stay quiet, don’t let anyone see you too much and then maybe you’ll slip through the cracks and it will all be okay.
I’m really lucky, people are taking a chance on me and hopefully I’m delivering. If I’m not, I guess it’s not the end of the world, I didn’t plan to be a writer, but it’s fun to be getting the opportunity.
Surely winning prizes like the Writers’ Guild Award for Best Play must go some way to convincing you you’re beyond blagging…
That was brilliant because it meant so many people had read it and thought it was of a standard. Even to get it nominated, it just means people who’ve read a million plays and watched a million plays are recognising your work. To call it the ‘Best Play’ you have to take with a pinch of salt because I watched a lot of plays that year and my play was not the best.
Do you think we’ve moved past the need to highlight the success of young female playwrights and can just celebrate good work regardless of gender?
I think the fact that we need to say “Do we need to talk about it?” probably means we do. There’s probably still inequality there. The more work that’s put on by girls the more people will just take it as normal and the more it will happen without even realising.
I’ve come up through this building, so in comparison to the rest of London I just see female playwrights everywhere I turn. If it’s not Laura Wade, it’s Anya Reiss, it’s Bola [Agbaje].
How important was the Royal Court Young Playwrights’ Programme to you?
Massively. I wouldn’t know how to write a play without it.
It’s not just the weekly course environment, it gives you access to playwrights who talk to you like you’re a human being and not a student. Through this building I’ve met Simon Stephens, I’ve met Roy Williams, I’ve met David Eldridge, I’ve met April De Angelis, and they just give you time and conversation and knowledge without even realising it. You can be at the bar talking to April and she’ll impart something without intending to, she’s just having chat. I don’t know many buildings that have the space or the money to do that, which is really sad.
Through this building you hear stories told like gossip and they’re amazing. Debbie (Tucker Green) just said “There will be tickets available or pay what you can on the door.” It took one person to be brave enough and smart enough to say it and know that she had the right to say it to make someone like me think I can ask for that as well. It happened with The Westbridge and it’s going to happen with Routes. They’re holding back however many tickets each night.
Why’s that important to you?
I don’t know many people who book way in advance for tickets. I think you’re going to be at home on a Tuesday and go “Let’s go watch a film at the cinema.” You’re not going to book up two Saturdays from now unless you’re watching it at the IMAX, you’re going to make that decision on the day and when you make that decision you’ll be really disappointed if the cinema’s sold out. If I walked into a pub and they said it was all reserved, I’d think it was the most ridiculous thing ever.
We live in a fast society and those opportunities should be available at 7pm. It’s all very well being all cool on Twitter, saying “We’ve got a sell out show.” If I read that I shut off and won’t even try. The truth is through returns you can probably still get tickets, but that sounds like effort, that sounds like something you’re going to have to queue for, it’s not going to be easy and it’s going to be a risk. You might not want to take a risk if you’ve been at work all day. You don’t want to queue for an hour then be told to go home. Why would anyone want to do that? Basically we want cheaper theatre with no queueing times, with available tickets as and when we need them.
What’s the best thing about being a writer?
I want to say the free tickets, but I’ve just been moaning about not getting any. I really like running my own schedule. That’s probably the dream for anyone in any job. If I work Friday, Saturday and Sunday, I could go to the lido on Monday.
What’s the worst?
Exactly the same thing, making sure you hit the deadlines. You’ve got no one to shout at you and fire you. I’m like the easiest person on me.
If you weren’t in theatre, what would you be doing?
I was working in retail to pay my bills and I probably would have been a store manager for a while. I enjoyed the business side of things, doing profit charts and working out figures. I wasn’t going to work every day hating it. I was working with really cool people, getting a job done and doing it well. I probably would have hit an age where I’d have asked “What am I doing?” then done that thing of retraining as something completely different later in life and been something really amazing… like a doctor!