Ron Hutchinson, the playwright behind Tricycle hits Topless Mum and Moonlight And Magnolias, is a very busy man, writes Matthew Amer.
He is currently balancing his writing commitments – in addition to being an award-winning playwright, the Irish-born, LA-based Hutchinson is also a very successful screenwriter – with the grace and precision of a silver service waiter attending a horde of hungry diners. In preparation for the opening of Topless Mum, he is in rehearsals at the Tricycle until 18:00, when he returns home and starts working on his Hollywood life, fielding calls from across the Atlantic. He has at least four different mobile phones to keep in touch with his many contacts – I have one mobile which no-one rings, so I already feel slightly jealous.
Hutchinson – a tall, imposing figure dressed top to toe in black with a face that has known the world and an attitude that doesn’t beat around the bush – likes to be busy. By the time Topless Mum has its press night he will have headed back to his sunnier LA home to focus on screen work, leaving his show in the capable hands of the cast and crew. “I don’t need to be balancing sherry in one hand and a canapé in the other while dodging compliments or abuse,” he says of the press night merry-go-round. “You sit there [in rehearsals] making sure the last apostrophe is in the right place, but at some point you’ve got to say ‘Blow this for a game of soldiers.’ It’s up to the actors to sell the thing every night.’”
The idea behind Topless Mum, the story of a soldier returning from Afghanistan who tries to sell photos of abuse to the tabloids, grew out of the fact that Hutchinson, who has worked in America for the last quarter of a century, is one step removed from the barracking of the British media. “I was interested in how amazingly brutal and robust and in your face the British press is in general,” he explains. “Even the BBC; I heard Gordon Brown dragged up an alley and given a good kicking by one of the interviewers the other day. They don’t do that in America. We [the UK] have this tradition of really speaking the truth to power, but the downside of that is the vulgarity and the nudity.”
Originally staged at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol last year, Topless Mum, Hutchinson admits, has been “slightly rewritten, in the same way that the First World War was a minor spat. I knew after Bristol that I hadn’t quite knocked it out of the park, that there was something in the play that was not quite released. In Bristol, the play just kind of petered out with a lot of moody, atmospheric writing tricks. Here I think we have the gasp. We can snap the audiences’ heads back.”
"You can write the most wonderful 25-character play; it’s probably going to be done in your head every night and make no money"
The process of rewriting has been intriguing for Hutchinson, who has taken on the script doctor-style role that he often plays in Hollywood, writing and rewriting to hit a specific target rather than creating from scratch with a world of possibilities. His involvement has continued on into rehearsals where, although he is often tucked away at the back of the room working on a different project, his playwright’s ear cannot ignore the dialogue: “I’m listening to the big sound of the thing. This is brass, this is the treble section, this is the flute, and if I’m not hearing that, my instincts are pretty good.”
His description of this process is typical of Hutchinson’s style throughout our meeting. He has a knack of finding just the right metaphor for any occasion. He uses music again when describing the economic restrictions that he now feels are imposed on playwrights. “It’s chamber music. It’s not a symphony orchestra for most writers any more, which means you’ve got to be writing chamber music, not Shostakovich’s seventh – it’s very hard to do that with three people.”
There is more than a hint of regret in Hutchinson’s voice as we discuss this current trend in theatre for writing small pieces for small casts, which is dictated by the economics of staging a show. He is concerned that it stifles the work of emerging young writers who don’t learn the art of shaping larger productions. Even he, an established writer with a history and reputation, feels the restriction: “I’m just aware that you can write the most wonderful 25-character play; it’s probably going to be done in your head every night and make no money.”
And yet, though he seems to fear for the art of writing theatrical pieces with more characters than you can count on one hand, when it comes down to it, Hutchinson treats writing as more business than art, more graft than calling. “My Dad’s a bricklayer,” he explains, utilising another handy metaphor, “and I kind of regard it the way he did: you have a bag of tools, you go to this building site, you go to that building site, finish the job, get paid off, maybe you fall out with the foreman and somebody else comes in to take your place. That’s how it goes sometimes.”
I wonder whether if he had stayed purely a playwright he would still think this way, or whether his move to LA has turned his head. There is something about the playwright, striving to see his work performed and making a meagre living in the process, that romantically seems to be all about the art, while the screenwriter, taking calls, working to briefs, rewriting someone else’s story, comes across as a kind of literary mercenary, taking money for whichever job he can.
"I got more for the eight page outline than I got for an entire eight hours of a BBC television series"
Certainly, when he first branched out across the pond, the change in remuneration struck him. It was actually a theatrical meeting that brought about his transatlantic move. American actor Brian Dennehy, who was starring in a Chicago production of Hutchinson’s Rat In The Skull, suggested the playwright should write an episode of Miami Vice. Hutchinson had never seen the trend-setting cop show, but a little cajoling saw him put pen to paper. “I got more for the eight page outline than I got for an entire eight hours of a BBC television series with Richard Griffiths in it,” he laughs.
Now, with numerous credits and an impressive reputation, producers send him projects and ideas to work his magic on. In our short chat alone he refers to a sci-fi adaptation of the Spartacus story, a Hitchcockian thriller and a series about the corrupt music industry of the 1980s – and these are just the specific projects. There are many more in the pipeline. And while some of the more romantically minded might think it disappointing that he doesn’t sit quietly alone in a darkened room tapping out stage productions on an old typewriter, there are three points he would have you remember: he has a teenage daughter who will want to go to university in a couple of years; the money he makes from screenwriting gives him the financial security to spend time writing for the theatre; and he enjoys writing for different media. “It’s that old saying: ‘You can make a killing in the theatre, but you can’t make a living.’ There are very few people who can afford just to do theatre… and I like doing movies and TV.”
The downside to stateside screenwriting is that, in Hutchinson’s words, “you can’t write a line in Hollywood unless you’re a member of the guild, and when they say you don’t write, you don’t mess around with that.” Which means that during the screenwriters’ strike last year Hutchinson had a lot of spare time on his hands and more than a little concern about his financial situation. “You can’t actually stop dead for six months with no income and not feel it,” he confirms.
Though he clearly had no time for the idea of the strike – “I told them I will not be on the picket line for five seconds and you can do what you like about it” – he employs a characteristically dry wit when discussing the events: “We had a strike in ’88 – the writers strike every so often – and a lot of people just remembered how great it was in ’88 on the picket line because they got to meet girls, get laid and practise We Shall Overcome on the harmonica. They wanted to do that again and that’s what a lot of them did, God bless them.”
He, like many neutral observers, is not sure exactly what the strike achieved, other than denying him the chance to work and denying viewers certain television programmes. He is sure, however, that the “faction of eejits” who instigated it will be voted out of office at the next Screenwriters’ Guild elections and, now that it is out of their system, there won’t be another strike for a good two decades.
"You get your money back if you don’t laugh five times"
The two sides to Hutchinson’s working life make for an interesting, and ultimately successful, combination. There is the business-like thinker which sees him advising students at the American Film Institute to “Take the gig. Do the job. Don’t turn it down. Get all the experience. Nothing like seeing actors say your words, and not being able to say your words, and having to fix it. Take the gig and never, never terminally fall out with anybody. Don’t be such an arsehole that nobody makes the call back to you.”
Then there is the gentler, more artistic Hutchinson who is “all about the writing”, who finds that many young writers, including himself when he first started out, spill dialogue onto a page without the ability to contort it into a play. “One becomes conscious of just how pleasing it is to shape something, to find the deeper inner structure,” he explains. “Most of us, it takes a long time to learn how to put two and two together, how to actually make the play work, do your reverses and twists and surprises and then deliver the denouement in the right place. It’s a life’s study, I think.”
Though it may have taken him longer than Martin McDonagh – who he cites on a number of occasions as a writer he admires – to discover this secret, with previous hit play Moonlight And Magnolias he certainly found a shape that worked. It is currently among the most produced plays in America. As Hutchinson says: “You go into any small town and there is a Texaco station, there’s the Denny’s fast food restaurant and there’s Moonlight And Magnolias playing.”
When the play about the rewriting of Gone With The Wind was staged at the Tricycle last year it received glittering reviews which pleased the writer: “You’re always surprised that people like it, rather than wanting to beat you to death on the high street.” But what particularly brought a smile to the face of the Irish-born, Coventry-raised, America-living playwright was that this small theatre in Kilburn has created a production that, in his opinion, was the definitive staging of his comedy. “We do farce really well; it’s a great tradition in English theatre. There’s something about these actors and this space, the music hall element in the play, the down and dirty stagecraft in it, the fact that there’s 25 slaps at one point in the slapstick section; they understand it in a way that sometimes American actors – God knows about the Japanese or the Swedes – may not have that tradition of ‘boom, boom, boom, farce’.”
For those theatregoers that didn’t get a chance to see the production last year, or aren’t willing to wait to see if a rumoured West End transfer comes to fruition, the Tricycle is restaging the show this summer. It comes with a business-like, tongue-firmly-in-his-cheek guarantee from Hutchinson: “I think we usually deliver some laughs along the way. There are certainly two laughs in the first half and three in the second. You get your money back if you don’t laugh five times!”