His latest work is Cotton Wool, now playing at Theatre 503, a lyrical tale of the exploits of two teenage brothers living in a rain-lashed Scottish coastal town, after the death of their mother.
Where did the seed for the story for Cotton Wool come from?
I began writing Cotton Wool in a small room in The Hurst – John Osborne’s house in Shropshire. I was part of a writing apprenticeship for young playwrights run by the Arvon foundation. The idea was that during the week’s residency, we’d each work on a new play. I was struggling because the play I’d brought with me wasn’t much good. So I was desperately trying to think of something new. I had two images in my head that had been stuck there for a while; one was an image of two lads on a cliff looking through a telescope and the other was a girl alone on a beach. I didn’t know what to do with them so was trying to think of a story.
At that point, I was thinking a lot about Hastings, where I had spent some time training as a journalist. It was a really odd place – full of people who had fallen out of the system. There was also a fair bit of mysticism – white witches, alternative religions, that kind of thing. With the impulse to write about the coast, isolated characters looking for something and the supernatural, the play story started to develop in my head. I decided the boys would be looking for a body.
Confusing matters was the fact that I was also wanting to write about being Scottish. Like a lot of people when they get into their late 20s, I wanted to find out a bit more about my family history and explore my identity. My mum was born and brought up in Kirkcaldy, where Cotton Wool is set, and my Dad moved there when he was a teenager. I was born in England and have an English accent. Despite being half-Scottish, I’ve always felt more English. Scotland for me was where we spent our holidays.
For about a year, Cotton Wool was set in Hastings, with Callum and Gussie having runaway to the south coast. I realised that this didn’t make any sense, so moved the play up to Kirkcaldy. With the town sharing a lot of the qualities of Hastings, it was much better that the action move to Scotland. I pushed the boys out to the margins of their society and made Harriet the runaway. Setting the play in Fife meant that I could weave in some of my thoughts and feelings about Scotland.
The play makes much use of local myth. Are the selkie folk that the brothers talk about a real childhood story or something you’ve created?
I had been reading a lot of Scottish folk stories as part of this exploration of what it meant to be Scottish. One of the most interesting stories was that of the selkies. The first thing that struck me was that the stories were definitely not for children – or at least some of the ones that I read. They were incredibly dark – lots of selkie men coming out of the sea to steal townswomen and selkie women luring men into the sea. These myths were full of death and horror. Not the nice fairies that you get in Disney. As well as the obvious sexuality of the stories, it quickly became clear that the stories were full of change – selkies metamorphosising into humans, humans turning into seals. As all drama is about change, the myth stuck in my head.
I had been asking myself why the boys were looking for a body. I hadn’t quite decided. Then I had a eureka moment and decided it should be their mum. The play would be about two lads who have lost their mum. One would be wanting to make a new start and the other would be desperately wanting her to come back. They would see a body, then a seal and wonder whether their mum had become a selkie. From that point, I had the character’s desires and fears. With Harriet mirroring their story, trying to find a father instead of a mother, the story was ready write the play as it is now.
There is a poetic quality to the brothers’ use of language. Is the Scottish accent particularly well suited to this sort of writing?
I’m not sure. I don’t think there’s any reason why you couldn’t heighten any other accent in the same way. I’m always trying to heighten language when I write because its something I really enjoy in other playwrights’ work – Joe Orton, Enda Walsh, Martin McDonagh. As a writer, one of the things that excites me about writing plays is that the language doesn’t have to be purely realistic as it is predominantly on television. I think that as long as the characters and emotionally and psychologically true, there’s a lot of scope for playing with language. The Fife dialect that I’ve used has so much slang that its great fun to bounce words off each other. Maybe because I’m a bit removed from that world, but familiar enough to know it, I can hear the rhythms in the language and it makes it easier to play with it.
Which writers do you most admire, both currently and as influences on your work?
As well as the ones above I’d say Caryl Churchill, number one, as a playwright for her precision and imagination. Plays like A Number, Blue Heart and Far Away are incredible. I read them again and again. Pinter is a bit of an obvious choice but his use of language is just astonishing. Beckett for his boldness and aesthetic. Joe Penhall for his warmth and empathy towards characters on the outskirts of society.
There’s a new generation of writers whose playfulness with form, language and imagery is incredibly exciting. Dennis Kelly, Anthony Weigh, Debbie Tucker Green and Phil Porter. I’ll see anything they do.
Any future plans or projects you wish to share with us?
I’m writing a play called La La Land about my Granddad’s experiences in a Burmese prisoner of war camp. At the moment, its got about a million characters so I’m not sure how many of them will make it to the end of the play. I’m trying to make it as bold, imaginative and magical as I can.
Cotton Wool is playing at Theatre 503, London, until 26 April 2008