Sarah Day spoke to Roy Smiles about his new play The Funny Girls which will play the New Wimbledon Studio and Upstairs at the Gatehouse.
What was the first show you saw at a theatre?
It was TITUS ANDRONICUS at the Bristol Old Vic with Gabrielle Drake who was astonishing in it.
I come from a working class background & had never been to the theatre until I went to college in Bristol. It was in 1979 and the memory has stayed with me ever since. I saw Peter O’Toole do MACBETH in that same period and he was fantastic in it despite the reviewers turning on him.
Can you remember how it made you feel?
I felt like I was home. I wanted to be a playwright the moment I set foot in the Bristol Old Vic. I love the sound of applause and the sights and smells backstage. I was bottom of every English class I was ever in so it’s like a surreal dream I could ever be a playwright. I never thought I’d survive writing one. But now I’m about to have my twenty seventh play staged & had over fifty productions in the UK, US, Sweden, Israel, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and the Czech Republic. So I’m living the dream. If a threadbare one.
Why is theatre important to you?
My literary agent tried to turn me into a sitcom writer in the 1990’s but I found the censorship suffocating. It was like writing in a strait-jacket. When I write for the theatre I’m free to speak my mind. I wrote a play about Jesus in Northern Ireland called JESUS OF DERRY which could never have been broadcast on television due to the mockery of religion and sectarianism. And my Kurt Cobain and Sid Vicious play -KURT & SID – would never see the light of day on TV because of the excessive language. Theatre is the most free of all the art forms.
What was it that made you want to become a writer?
I grew up with a Geordie grandmother who was obsessed with Westerns. I must have seen 3.10 TO YUMA and SHANE at least twenty times before I was ten. So originally I was going to be a Western writer. But all that changed once I went to the theatre. I spent the 80’s in Brighton running a theatre company after college. Writing many sketch comedy shows which played Edinburgh. And was in a comedy double act called Smiles & Kemp that was active from 1985-1989. We did movie parodies and historical themed hour long shows. I was responsible for all the material for that. I was writing plays all that time but was turned down by the usual suspects. I then got into a two year run of the musical A SLICE OF SATURDAY NIGHT at The Arts Theatre which gave me the income and time to write during the day and wrote SCHMUCKS about Groucho Marx meeting Lenny Bruce in that period. Artistic director Paul Blackman gave me my first big break by staging it at the Battersea Arts Centre in a brilliant production. I haven’t looked back since.
Your first play Schmucks was staged in 1992. How has your writing developed since then? What/who inspires you?
Playwright & director Terry Johnson was my mentor when I did my writing attachment to The National Theatre So he’s been a big influence. He was the one who suggested I write a play about The Goons which ended up being produced by Michael Codron at The Ambassadors Theatre (YING TONG – A WALK WITH THE GOONS). I have been obsessed with Joe Orton since I can remember. I wrote about about him in my play ORTONESQUE. Oscar Wilde has got be my one of my all time heroes. I wrote about him & George Bernard Shaw in my play READING GAOL. Alan Bennett makes me weep with laughter. I particularly like his play GETTING ON. So he’s definitely an influence. I wrote about him, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller in my piece about the Beyond The Fringe team: BEHIND THE BEYOND. Which was broadcast on Radio 4. Clifford Odets, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller would be my more serious influences. I’ve written about Miller and his marriage to Marilyn Monroe in my play MARILYN/MILLER which was staged at the Brighton Festival. Modern writers I bow to David Mamet, Martin McDonagh and Patrick Marber. I knew Patrick from his stand up comedy days and he was always very encouraging. I think my writing might have got a lot darker over the years. Due to the course of my life. I got into dark places writing my play about Kurt Cobain. THE FUNNY GIRLS was written shortly after that in an attempt to brighten my gloom. I had two cancer operations that went wrong last year which led to a stroke and I lost my memory and ability to spell for quite a few months. I was worried I’d never write again. I had to have speech and memory therapy. All good now and I used my recovery time to write a play about Christopher Hitchens called HITCHENS: A RAGE TO SPEAK. My son pointed out only I could write a play about someone dying of cancer whilst at the same time recovering from cancer. It’s pretty dark piece to be honest. If funny. Not sure I will be writing again. Waiting on another a last operation currently and housebound. Hope the writing bug comes back once I’m healthy again. But I’ve written upwards of fifty plays so perhaps I’ve exhausted my literary juices.
Is there a moment in your career you consider to be the one you are proudest of?
Seeing Sean Evans as Kurt Cobain and Danny Dyer playing Sid Vicious in KURT & SID at The Trafalgar Studios blew me away. The best actors I have ever worked with and it was a dream to watch. If the reviews were mixed. The actor Sean Patterson played Bobby Kennedy in my play THE LAST PILGRIM which was a magnificent performance. I played opposite Sally Lindsey in my play about my brief if doomed attempt to do stand up comedy in my play THE HO HO CLUB at the Kings Head Theatre and that was amazing. Her truth as an actress took the play to another level. As did Hugo Speer playing Orwell in my play YEAR OF THE RAT at West Yorkshire Playhouse. The collective cast of my play about the Python team: PYTHONESQUE at the Edinburgh Festival was a brilliant ensemble effort. So that stays with the memory also. But probably Sean Evans as Kurt Cobain is the highlight. He plays the young Morse in ENDEVOUR of course. He had me in tears almost every night.
You have now written over 40 shows, which leads us to your latest show The Funny Girls. Tell us about the show and what inspired you to write it.
I’m a huge fan of New York Jewish comedy. My twin gods in the 1970’s were Woody Allen and Mel Brooks. I spent my childhood doing Marx Brothers impressions with my brother. And an uncle gave me a Lenny Bruce album when I was fourteen that literally changed my life. I am a mad fan of Neil Simon: BRIGHTON BEACH MEMORIES, THE ODD COUPLE, PRISONER OF 2ND AVENUE and BAREFOOT IN THE PARK etc. So I fancied writing something very Jewish and New York wise cracking. I happened to be reading the Joan Rivers autobiography & found the story of her being Streisand’s lesbian stalker in an off-off-off Broadway play hilarious. So I thought I might get a play out of it. As I said above I was trying to get away from the dark period of my life researching Kurt Cobain so it’s a deliberately light, frothy piece. If very funny. He hoped. I always loved Streisand since I saw WHAT’S UP DOC when I was a kid and its a delight to write in her voice of course.
Without giving too much away, why should our britishtheatre.com community book a ticket to see The Funny Girls?
Well, you’ll laugh! It’s very funny and the girls cast in the play are pitch perfect. It you like Streisand and Rivers and love New York comedy you’ll have a blast.
The Funny Girls is part of the New Writing season at the New Wimbledon theatre. What advice would you give to aspiring new playwrights?
Avoid writing biographical plays. It’s led to my long lifetime of rejection and poverty. No, seriously, try and find your own voice. I may be a bad writer as several critics have pointed out but at least I’m bad on my own terms. Actually, by and large, the critics have been very fair with me. You shouldn’t be afraid of failing as a writer. Mama Cass said it all when she sang: ‘Make Your Own Kind Of Music.’ The world is full of Dreamslayers. Most of the teachers I ever had, and I went to three Comprehensives, sneered wildly when I said I wanted to be a writer. But here I am. Having been staged for thirty years. Be a Don Quixote. Tilt your lance at all the Dreamslayers. Dream the impossible dream. It can happen.
Finally, if your life were a show, what would it be called and why?
The title of the play of my own life would be GOD LOVES A TRIER. Almost all of my plays have been rejected merrily over the past thirty years with giggling mirth by the four big theatres: The Royal Court, The National, Hampstead Theatre and The RSC. Yet I still keep plugging away. Trying to be a contender. Avoiding the last train to Palookaville. If anyone would like to read any of the plays mentioned my website can be found here. The plays are available to download for free. Be nice to have some of the ones not yet staged read.
Do come to see THE FUNNY GIRLS if you can. It’s a hoot. It’s on at the Wimbledon Theatre Studio from the 17th September.