David Eldridge is a Romford born playwright. His plays include Serving it Up, written when he was just 22. Summer Begins, Incomplete and Random Acts of Kindness and the sprawling Market Boy which was staged in the National’s Olivier Theatre. He also adapted the dogme film Festen for the stage, an acclaimed production that would later transfer to Broadway. His play Under the Blue Sky, written in 2000 and originally staged at the Royal Court, will be revived in the West End this summer.
David Eldridge speaks with precision and passion. As befits a playwright, it is clear that words matter. If he misspeaks, if there is any potential to misconstrue, he is always quick to clarify.
We are sitting in a quiet corner of the British Library caf discussing his role in Metamorphosis 08, the new writing competition of the Churchill Theatre Bromley. Funded by the arts council it was open to residents of four south London boroughs: Bexley, Bromley, Greenwich and Lewisham. Out of fifty entrants, two winning plays were picked to be developed with a professional director and staged at the Churchill later in June. Eldridge chaired the judging panel.
What was it about the scheme that interested him? Though the Churchill has held a new writing competition for some years, it has previously been a low key affair; Metamorphosis 08 simply took the idea to the next level. Despite this the Churchill’s reputation is essentially that of a receiving house, the surrounding area “something of a cultural desert.” Eldridge was enthused by a “sense of urgency to try and do something with aspiring writers out of London.” With the theatres usually associated with the development of new writing there is often an emphasis on encouraging young writers, he explains, “but new writers are not necessarily young writers, take Richard Bean for example.” The community-focused aspect of the competition appealed to him, that there might “It was the same inspiration and motivation that led to me setting up the Writers Group at the Queens Theatre in Hornchurch. So when Derek Nicholls at the Churchill got in touch with me about chairing the judging panel I jumped at the chance because I thought it was an important thing to do.”
The first of the winning plays of Metamorphosis 08 was Overspill by Ali Taylor, an aspiring playwright who has already had some success as a writer. His play Cotton Wool was staged recently at Theatre 503 in Battersea to very favourable reviews from the critics and his work has had rehearsed readings at the Yong Vic and Royal Court. The second play was (in parenthesis), by musician Ben Hales, who, with his brother Matt, is part of the band Aqualung. He had not written a full-length play prior to the competition.
Taylor’s play is about three young men on a night out in Bromley. Eldridge says it “appealed to us collectively as judges.” They were particularly excited about “the energy of the writing and how that was allied to a daring choral style which none of us had really encountered before. There have been lots of dramatists that have experimented with choral and monologic forms, Irish playwrights in particular, like Connor MacPherson and Mark O’Rowe, but the heartbeat of those works was at slower tempo. They had a different rhythmic engagement with the audience, they didn’t have the same level of energy.” Eldridge was impressed by the universality of the writing, though Taylor is writing about Bromley, “the accuracy with which he draws a Friday night in any town in suburbia resonates: lads out, shorts out, loafers, lager.” He pauses to summarise, Taylor’s play excelled in three areas: “the accuracy of the writing, the energy of the writing and its formal boldness.”
Ben Hales’ (in parenthesis) is a different animal. It is about three rock climbers who have fallen from a mountain and are left hanging in midair from climbing ropes. It is this “bold theatrical image at the centre of the play” that appealed to the judges, they “loved the chutzpah, the daring,” and thought it was “the single most striking theatrical image of all the plays.” Eldridge was also taken with “how the author achieved a debate on the meaning of life, an existentialism, and how that wasn’t at all earnest but instead was allied with a lovely mordant dark humour.”
Eldridge’s own journey into theatre is an interesting one, characterised by determination and drive. Though he admits he didn’t dream of being a playwright from a young age, in fact he says “I never knew what I wanted to do. I was a scholarship boy at a public school, leading a funny dual existence working in Romford market. I thought I might be a teacher, or maybe go into the City. I didn’t even see a play until I was 17 then I saw Nick Hytner’s production of King Lear at the Barbican and it was a revelatory moment. I went along with this adolescent attitude, that this will be dull and boring, and was literally blown away, almost in tears at the end, it worked its magic.” Even then he had no ambition to write, wanting at first to make it as a director. “But I went off the idea when I was studying,” he explains. “I thought to be a director you had to be a bit of a tosser though, of course, I now know that very few are actually like that.” Also, at the time he was studying at Exeter University “deconstructing was in vogue, physical theatre, devising, and I just wasn’t interested in that. I had things I wanted to say. So I had a go at writing my own play, Serving It Up, which eventually went to the Bush. And once I discovered I enjoyed writing, that it was something I could do, I turned all my energies in that direction.”
He’s currently working on something new, the details of which he’s keeping to himself until it’s completed, but more immediately there’s the revival of his play Under The Blue Sky, which is to be staged in the West End this summer. When it was initially staged at the Royal Court Upstairs (where it was directed by Rufus Norris), The Guardian’s Michael Billington called it “a teachers’ La Ronde which deals, in a wittily circular fashion with romantic and sexual agony among the academic classes.” The play deals with three subtly connected love stories and the revival will be directed by Anna Mackim, with a rather starry cast including Francesca Annis, Lisa Dillon, The IT Crowd’s Chris O’Dowd and Catherine Tate. How involved was he in the casting process? Eldridge says he is “very interested in actors,” that, in fact, he has a rather “geeky knowledge of actors, and keeps a log at home of actors I like.” Indeed he says “my involvement in the casting process is the most significant contribution I’ll make to the production this time.” But he is interested in seeing the play again “in a different context, a different time.”
The most notable casting choice is that of Catherine Tate as a “slutty maths teacher, pushing forty.” But while Tate is best know these days for her sketch show, and of course, latterly as a sidekick of David Tennant’s Dr Who, Eldridge points out that “she spent a few years as a jobbing actor at the National and the RSC. The comedy was something she did for herself, she never considered herself anything other than an actor and always had an interest in doing plays. I saw her in a reading at the Donmar and she was fantastic in it, so when they first talked to me about sending Catherine Tate the play, I was delighted. She’s very well cast and, really for her, this is a coming home more than a departure.”
The winning plays in Metamorphosis 08 will be at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley, from 18-22 June 2008
Under The Blue Sky will be at the Duke Of York’s Theatre, London, from 15 July 20 September 2008
Read the musicOMH review of Overspill and [in parenthesis] at the Churchill Theatre here.