Diane Parkes talks to the playwright behind the latest work for the Birmingham REP.
In the rehearsal room for the new play Notes To Future Self there is a photograph of a Birmingham street. And playwright Lucy Caldwell says this photograph is integral to their understanding of the play.
“It is a row of houses in Kings Heath,” she says. “And it is the home for the characters in the play. Something alchemical has happened because it has been transformed but it is the place which the play is about. This play always had to be set in Birmingham.”
Although Notes To Future Self was commissioned by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and will premiere as part of its season at mac next month, Lucy says there was no ruling that the play be set locally. She just felt it was right.
“In my mind it was always here,” she says. “I grew up in Belfast, which is where my last play Leaves was set, but this play was always connected to Birmingham.”
Lucy admits setting it locally did pose its problems – but there were solutions.
“I knew this area because my mum’s best friend, my surrogate aunt, lived in Birmingham and then Kidderminster and now lives in Hagley,” she says. “And if I had any questions there were lots of people I could check with.
“That was very good for accents. We had a couple of workshops here and if there were any words or phrases I was unsure of I asked the actors. If it was too Irish I would ask for the local slang. It was a bit like translation.”
Notes To Future Self hinges around three generations of women. Teenagers Sophie and Calliope have lived a transient lifestyle. Their mother Judy ran away from home when she was 17 and brought her daughters up in a series of communes and ashrams in Goa, San Francisco and Morocco.
But when Sophie develops cancer the family return home to their grandmother Daphne’s house in Kings Heath. Strangers suddenly thrown together at a time of crisis, the play examines how two worlds can combine and collide and the effects on each of them.
“When you tell people the play features osteosarcoma their faces just fall,” says 29-year-old Lucy. “But it’s not just about that. It is about redemption in a family and it is about fun. These children have grown up in a Hideous Kinky-style of life which has been full of colour and life and then they come to this house in Kings Heath to be with their grandmother who has quite a different kind of existence.
“All their lives have gone off kilter. This hippy family trying to fit into a house in Kings Heath becomes a metaphor for everything that is going on in their lives.
“And it is like a second cycle for the grandmother. She has never been able to leave that house and has been frozen in time because she has not heard from her daughter since she ran away at 17 and that is the address her daughter knows. Now suddenly she is needed again as a mother.”
Appearing as the two sisters are Shameless actress Amanda Ryan, who appeared at the Rep in Wuthering Heights in 2008, and Jayne Wisener, who played Johanna in the 2007 film Sweeney Todd with Johnny Depp. Taking the part of Sophie is Imogen Doel while Daphne is played by Jane Lowe, whose television credits include Coronation Street, Casualty and Bad Girls.
Lucy says she feels entirely comfortable exploring the lives of women.
“I tend to write about women,” she says. “I grew up with two sisters and went to an all girls’ school. And as a woman I am interested in the experience of representing women on the stage. It hasn’t been that long that we have had that many women playwrights.”
Continuing the female theme, Notes To Future Self is being directed by Rachel Kavanaugh, the Rep’s artistic director for the past five years. This show will be Rachel’s last production as the theatre’s artistic director before she steps down this spring to spend more time with her family.
“I feel in such safe hands with Rachel,” says Lucy. “She brings so much out of your writing. It is always a bit terrifying as a writer the first time that you see it in rehearsal. Some parts which you thought you had thought through suddenly look a bit threadbare. But Rachel really gets the play and works so well with the actors to bring out the best of what you have written.”
* Birmingham Rep presents Notes To Future Self at the mac, March 3-12. Tickets: 0121 236 4455, www.birmingham-rep.co.uk It visits Bromsgrove Artrix on March 21 (01527 577330, www.artrix.co.uk) and Wolverhampton Arena Theatre on March 28 (01902 321321, www.arena.wlv.ac.uk)