Category Archive: 40th Anniversary

The Earth You’re Changing

In January 2014 we hosted a panel discussion at the National Theatre with four of our alumni: actors HARRIET WALTER and FIONA VICTORY, playwright STEPHEN JEFFREYS and director JOHN TIFFANY. Here’s what they had to say about their time at PPHQ…

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FV: David Pownall and John Adams and the actor Chris Crooks were out of work and miserable and they were drinking beer at the Paines pub in Bedfordshire. As David Pownall tells it, he said, “Oh stop moaning. I’ll write you a play. You will act in it, you will direct it, and we’ll go to the Edinburgh Festival.” And they did. It was a play called Crates on Barrels and it was about a Greek philosopher —

HW: Socrates.

FV: Yes, Socrates — and it was very good.

HW: Richard III Part Two was my first with Paines Plough, it was quite a large piece involving lots of music, two or three different time zones and George Orwell- pretty ‘Powellian’. David’s imagination was immense. Steven Boxer had had a musical training and a teaching training, and he wrote wonderful music. I was listening to it recently. He was only 23 and he was writing these wonderful complex tunes and –

FV: – and teaching everybody else! People who couldn’t sing, had never sung, couldn’t read music, couldn’t play anything, he somehow managed to give everyone their line and teach them how to do it calmly.

HW: At the time it was very unusual to get a young bunch of actors together at the early stage of a play and evolve it with them with everyone doing the music, and the costumes, and the props, and everything ourselves, then tour it all over the country

FV:— in a small van!

HW: We used to do the fit ups and strike the sets ourselves. A couple of people helped with the lighting, and we used to do the ironing

FV: – and sacking skips and making tea and whatever.


By the time I joined, David had stopped writing all the plays himself. It went from being a writer’s company with an apostrophe-s to a writers’ company with an s-apostrophe. There was a wave of new people, David Moat, Elizabeth and, the young Terry Johnson — a mere slip of a lad at the time- and we were all brought in. We were the first people were writing plays that weren’t by David Pownall, and that was rather difficult. You thought, ‘oh I’ve got to write a play that takes place in three different time zones with madrigals and people playing sackbutts and things: I started doing that and it was a complete disaster.

John Adams, the director, commissioned this play from me and it wasn’t going well. He said, “Well, you’ve got to finish it this weekend” and then, “What I’ll do is this: I’ll leave you in my flat, in Leamington Spa, and I’ll just clear off and you’ll finish it by the end of the weekend.” John’s mistake was that he had a priceless collection of malt whiskeys. He came back and found that I’d barely written a word. He said, “You’re trying to write the wrong kind of play. I want you to write your kind of play.” That’s what Paines Plough then did: it successfully mutated from a David P company to a company that could do any kind of new play at all. Somehow, Paines Plough’s always been very good at negotiating those awkward moments of handover.

I came back in the Pip Broughton era. She was — and still is- a wonderful director. Paines Plough had evolved into a matriarchy. We had offices by Warren Street tube station and Ian Rickson and I were the only men in the company. There was Pip and Sue Storr and Vicky Heywood. It was a very, very lively time, because there was a lot of exciting new writing around.

There were two phases under Pip. One consisted of a lot of very political plays about early Thatcherism, set in different parts of the country reflecting local conditions. Then, by around 1986 or so, she’d had enough of that and did another of those big, daring Paines Plough changes. We suddenly became a big company doing big plays. We did a version of GERMINAL. We did my play THE CLINK, another by Nigel Gearing called BERLIN DAYS HOLLYWOOD NIGHTS. Huge plays.

When Pip left Anna Furse took over. She came from a dance background and, for a while, it almost became a performance art company. So Paines Plough was in a constant state of mutation. That’s why it survived.


Vicky [Featherstone] couldn’t really get arrested when Paines Plough gave her a job. She’d left the West Yorkshire Playhouse and moved to London, but couldn’t get herself taken seriously as a director of new writing. The Bush gave her a job for a little while — Literary Manager, I think— then she went into TV. She was doing really well, developed Touching Evil and Silent Witness, worked at the BBC and independents, then went for this job at Paines Plough — and the visionary board took a chance on her.

As Stephen says Paines Plough attracts writers. By the time I arrived in 2001, we were really developing a wonderful stable, people like Abi Morgan, Jack Thorne, Sarah [Kane] obviously, Mark Ravenhill was writing a lot for them at the time, Gregory Burke, David Greig, Enda Walsh, Philip Ridley.

We got the Peggy Ramsey award that year, which was —£50,000, wasn’t it? We decided we were just going to commission eight playwrights, and we bullied the Menier Chocolate Factory, which was still in its infancy, into taking all four plays. Philip Ridley wrote this amazing play called Mercury Fur, which was the first one I directed. Ben Whishaw was in it and — we didn’t quite realise at the time— but it was a bloodbath by the end. The Chocolate Factory didn’t have a shower, so some of our hard earned sponsorship money— I shouldn’t admit this — bought the Chocolate Factory its first ever shower. Actors ever since have got Paines Plough to thank…

In 2004, I was in Mexico directing a play over a summer and Vicky called me one morning and went, “Guess what, I’ve been given a new job running the National Theatre of Scotland.” To go from, you know a company like Paines Plough to running —to setting up — a national theatre was amazing. We always said— Neil Murray, who was the producer, he still is, David Greig who was the dramaturg at the time, me and Vicky we said, ‘Well, we’re going to run it like Paines Plough, but with £6 milllion.” Having done what we did at Paines Plough for £120,000 from the Arts Council, we knew what that money could buy. We were determined not to be frivolous or fritter it away.

What James and George have done amazingly is to treat the whole country like it’s a venue, which is so inspiring. The output has doubled or tripled. Vicky and I followed the model of two shows a year and when you look at the volume of work that these two are managing, on not much more money, you look at the list now of things coming through in 2014, it’s incredible. It really is.

One more thing: I’ve been under a delusion for many, many years. I thought Paines Plough meant the plough of Tom Paine, the radical thinker, the surface of the earth you’re changing. Only now do I find out it was thought up in a boozer!

Playing For Britain

In 2014 we celebrated our 40th birthday and to mark the occasion we released a book packed full of images, insights and interesting articles. Over the coming months we’ll be sharing some of our favourite features from the book and what better way to kick us off, than with Matt Trueman on the history of new writing in British theatre.

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New writing is at the heart of British theatre. Every so called theatrical revolution this country has seen has centred on new plays, from the Angry Young Men in the 1950’s to the In-Yer-Face generation of the 1990’s. Back in 2009. when theatre critics were last trumpeting a golden age, it was motored by dazzling and ambitious new plays, including Jez Butterworth’s JERUSALEM and Lucy Prebble’s ENRON. Even 2014, a sudden flutter of springtime excitement was down to British playwrights firing on all cylinders: Simon Stephens with BIRDLAND, Mike Bartlett with KING CHARLES III, James Graham with PRIVACY.

As an art form, theatre is uniquely placed. It’s a communal art that exists — can only exist- in a public space and it’s an ephemeral art that can only exist in the present moment. Bearing all that in mind, it’s hardly surprising that,more so than visual art or film, theatre should set out to address the world that we all share, the here and now.

The stage is where we see the state of the nation – increasingly, even, the state of the world – reflected and retracted. Sometimes that means that classic plays, most notably Shakespeare’s, are used very deliberately to rub up against the moment in which they are staged. Mostly, though, it means a healthy culture of new plays that do exactly that- and it’s this that we term new writing.

The theatre critic Aleks Sierz has defined new writing [or ‘new writing proper’ as he sometimes calls it] as a genre in its own right. To qualify as new writing, a play must somehow address the present moment – even if only obliquely, perhaps through metaphor or analogy. Not all new plays do that: think of THE HISTORY BOYS or ONE MAN, TWO GUV’NORS, for example. But a great many do and, even if there’s a circularity at play in Sierz’s conviction that we can understand the present through new writing that seeks to understand the present, there is some truth in it.

Britain is unique in the import it bestows upon its playwrights. Think about the sorts of plays you see reviewed in the front end of newspapers, the news sections: big name actors in big name classics, yes, where casting can be a news story in its own right. but also big new plays with something newsworthy to say. Britain’s playwrights are allowed to be public intellectuals and political commentators.

That doesn’t happen so much in America, for all the strength of its playwriting culture. Musicals make the news pages there, other big Broadway shows too, but rarely new plays and almost never present-tense political work. The same goes for European countries, where directors rule the roost, smashing classic lays into contemporary sensibilities and resonance, not playwrights. Britain still places the playwright centre stage. Directors talk about- quote unouote— serving the text, usually through fidelity to it.

What’s more, British theatres insistence on novelty, be that in new writing or new work, is only increasing. The figures bear that out. In the 1980’s and 1990’s new work made up between 15 and 20 per cent of British theatre programming. In the last decade, that figure had swelled to 42 per cent. Nor was that work confined to small studio theatres in the same way. The majority took place in 200-seat plus venues.

By 2003, new writing in Britain was achieving an average of 63.6% at box office – up from 62% per cent only five years earlier or 57% in 1997. In the late eighties, new plays regularly played to half empty theatre and the Royal Court was responsible for about 10% of new writing across the entire country.

Today, the picture is vastly different, almost unrecognisable. Britain has built an established nationwide network for new writing. There are theatres dedicated entirely to new writing all over the country — the Traverse in Edinburgh, Live Theatre in Newcastle— and many more that ensure that it remains central to programming. London’s new writing scene, from the Royal Court to the Bush to Theatre503 with many in between, is thriving. And even organisations like Shakespeare’s Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Company have got new writing policies with a view to developing new work.

All of which is an ideal context tor Paines Plough – the national theatre of new writing, remember — to do what it’s done best for 40 years: develop and stage the best new plays across the nation.

40 years of PP in print

Last year we celebrated 40 years of Paines Plough with a programme of top new plays and a host of special events and occasions. We also set about celebrating this great company on paper, and we’re proud to unveil the result.

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PP40 is a beautiful journal celebrating four decades of Paines Plough. We didn’t want to produce one of those boring, glossy coffee table books. We wanted to do something a bit more, well, Paines Plough. A bit all over the place, but all the more beautiful for it. A kind of scrap book, or travelogue. A journal of ideas. A catalogue of miscellany.

Within its pages you’ll find articles, anecdotes, opinions, photographs, quotes, infographics, insights, drawings, memories, extracts of plays, memories, folklore, humour and roll calls of honour. It features contributions from many of our illustrious alumni including Dame Harriet Walter, Vicky Featherstone, Stephen Jeffreys, John Tiffany, April De Angelis, Abi Morgan and Mike Bartlett.

We hope it captures the spirit of Paines Plough – fun-loving, far-reaching, forward-thinking and completely obsessed with new plays and touring. We hope you like it.

You can find out more and order your copy of PP40 here.

Paines Plough founders reunite for reading

Some will probably know the age-old tale of Paines Plough’s history by now – founded over a pint of Paines bitter in the Plough pub by director John Adams and playwright David Pownall in 1974.

Two years later, the two went on to win Paines Plough’s very first Fringe First award in 1976. And so it began.

Forty years on, as we celebrate our 40th anniversary and another Fringe First win at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, it seems a fitting time for us to reflect on where it all began and also celebrate the work of our founding members.

For one night only, on Wednesday 7.30pm at the Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre, RADA, you can catch a reading of Innocent Screams, a new play by David Pownall. We’ll be there.

With pints.

@painesplough  | |  fb/painesploughHQ

PP Blast from the Past

This month’s Blast from the Past feature sees us revisit Philip Ridley’s boundary-pushing MERCURY FUR, directed by John Tiffany.

Causing an uproar and igniting controversy when it first premiered at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2005 (with publishers initially refusing to publish the script), Ridley’s tale of a lawless London;  a London decimated by rioting, looting and violence, seems to ring truer many years on.

“[T]he shocking accuracies of what he envisaged back in 2005… The writing that we are dealing with feels like a response to now: a grim parable of disillusioned, disenchanted youth and yet a play so overwhelmingly concerned with love that it feels like you are being embraced with every word…

A play, written in 2005…that feels like it actually makes a point about our world that is worth hearing: no matter how horrific humanity can be (pretty bloody horrific) there will always be something, somewhere to redeem us.”            – Joel Samuels.

With Ben Whishaw and Rob Boutler originating the roles in 2005, further productions of Mercury Fur in recent years have gone on to attest Ridley’s exceptional, almost premonitory, writing talent. One we’re proud to have as part of our PP history.


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James and George on PP’s 40th Year

Our ADs James and George recently wrote a piece for WhatsOnStage on celebrating PP’s biggest season to date. You can view the original article here or read on below.

James Grieve and George Perrin

It’s a great honour to be the custodians of the company as it reaches this milestone. The anniversary has given us an excuse to properly delve into the archives at The V&A and it’s been thrilling to find sepia photos of Joe Marcell and Harriet Walter and Eric Richard performing in early Paines Plough productions in the 70s; photos of Andy Serkis and Peter Capaldi and Ben Whishaw.

We found this incredible portrait of Ian Hart taken by the legendary rock ‘n’ roll photographer Kevin Cummins in 1986, so we got in touch with Kevin and amazingly he remembered the shoot, remembered Paines Plough and agreed to come and photograph our production of Mike Bartlett‘s An Intervention as part of our 40th. He took an astonishing portrait of Rachael Stirling which someone will unearth in 40 years time. Some of the great actors of the past four decades have worked with Paines Plough.

But it is the roll call of playwrights that really articulates what 40 years of PP has meant for British theatre. The company was founded by a playwright, David Pownall, and a director, John Adams in 1974. Initially the company produced David’s plays which John directed, but in the early 80s the company started producing the work of Stephen Jeffreys, and the debut play by an aspiring writer called Terry Johnson. Since then it has been Paines Plough’s raison d’être to discover brilliant young writers, produce their early work, and send them off to write for the National Theatre and Hollywood, and win Oliviers and BAFTAs. Tony Marchant, Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill, Dennis Kelly, Abi Morgan, Jack Thorne – it’s an illustrious alumni.

And so we see turning 40 as a chance to celebrate those extraordinary writers whose work has shaped theatre and television and film, and to secure the legacy of PP for another 40 years by producing great new talent like Tom Wells and Kate Tempest.

We started the anniversary year by hosting a party for everyone who’s ever worked for the company at The Young Vic. Our founders David and John were guests of honour, and actors from the very first company swapped stories with the cast of Jumpers for Goalposts.

The National Theatre invited us to stage a Platform event at which Fiona Victory, Harriet Walter, Stephen Jeffreys and John Tiffany told amazing tales from their time on tour with PP through the ages. Then we held an industry symposium in Manchester titled The Future Of Small Scale Touring to try to energise the debate around touring new plays.

But mostly we’re just doing what the company has always done – producing great new plays and touring them. Programme 2014 is our biggest ever, with 12 productions touring to 50 places nationwide. We’re producing the work of Olivier award winners and debutants, in proscenium arch playhouses and student union bars, at music festivals and in village halls.

At the heart of our anniversary programme is the launch of the Roundabout Auditorium – our new pop-up theatre. Roundabout is a 170 seat in-the-round auditorium that flat packs into a lorry and can be erected anywhere from theatres to school halls, sports centres to warehouses. It means that we can tour new plays to more places than ever before, and introduce a whole new audience to our best playwrights.

Paines Plough has always existed to produce the best new plays and tour them far and wide. We strive to be a truly national theatre of new plays, by travelling to every corner of the country to give as many people as possible the chance to see the best of British new writing.

If you live in London, you’re spoilt for choice. On any one night you can choose from more than 50 productions ranging from Shakespeare, to Sondheim, to a new play by a first time writer. But if you live in Frome or Folkestone or Falkirk, your menu is rather more limited. And even if the odd King Learcomes to town, very few of the nation’s best new plays are ever seen outside major cities. You’ve got more chance of seeing the best of British new plays if you live in New York, than if you live in York.

We believe everyone should have the opportunity to see the best new plays. So we try to be the national touring theatre showcasing the best of British new plays far and wide, from Aberdeen to the Isle of Wight.

PP has premiered many plays that were ahead of the curve and changed the landscape. Plays like Craveand Mercury Fur. But its impact resonates beyond its own programmes, in the work of the playwrights Paines Plough championed at the start of their careers, who go on to be world-beaters. Abi Morgan‘s films Shame and The Iron Lady have been seen by cinema audiences worldwide. Dennis Kelly’sMatilda: The Musical has taken the West End and Broadway by storm. Writers like Jack Thorne, Nick Payne, Penelope Skinner and Tom Wells came through our Future Perfect playwright attachment programme. Vicky Featherstone now runs the Royal Court, John Tiffany is the toast of Broadway. PP has launched the careers of some of our nation’s greatest artists.

To read the full article, click here.

Friday Feature – Blast from the Past

In this week’s Blast from the Past, we’re throwing some love at SLEEPING AROUND, the envelope-pushing production directed by Vicky Featherstone, and written by incredible writing talents Abi Morgan, Mark Ravenhill, Hilary Fannin and Stephen Greenhorn.

Thoughts/comments? Join us online:


#PP40 #PPblastfromthepast


Friday Feature – Blast from the Past

This week’s PP blast from the past is CRAVE, the iconic play by Sarah Kane, directed by Vicky Featherstone.

Last Thursday Feb 20 marked Sarah Kane’s 15 year death anniversary. Though a short career, between 1995 to 1999 Kane created work that was always innovative, challenging, and incredibly visceral.

So today, we revisit an incredible talent – one we’re honoured to have as part of our PP history – and a production we’re very proud of.

A letter from Sarah Kane to former PP Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone.

Thoughts/comments? Join us online:


#PP40 #PPblastfromthepast

Weekly Friday Feature: Blast from the Past

As we’re celebrating 4 decades on the road, we thought it fitting to start a weekly feature revisiting the wonderful people, productions and places that turned PP into what it is today.

So, this week’s Blast from the Past is AFTER THE END by award-winning writer Dennis Kelly.

Thoughts to share? Join in the twitter conversation with @painesplough #ppblastfromthepast


40th Platform at the Shed

A few weeks ago, we held a platform event at the National Theatre Shed as a lead-up to our Programme 2014 announcement. 

Stephen Jeffreys, John Tiffany, Fiona Victory and Harriet Walter joined our ADs James Grieve and George Perrin in sharing tales of 40 years on the road, and discussing PP’s rise in becoming the national theatre of new plays.

Have a look at some photos from the event below.

For the full set, visit our flickr page.

Have you seen Programme 2014 yet? Click here to check out our brand new season of shows.


Images by Alex Brenner