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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.

PP40 book v12 p10-118

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.

AN INTERVENTION reviews round-up

Here’s a quick round-up of some of the raves for Mike Bartlett’s AN INTERVENTION. You’ve got until Saturday to catch it at Watford Palace Theatre.

John Hollingworth and Rachael Stirling in AN INTERVENTION

“This playful two-hander – a mischievous, deceptive look at friendship in its many forms… provocatively questions our responsibilities as friends and citizens who sometimes let each other down… a funny, sad play about the need to look after each other.”
★★★★ The Guardian

“It will be performed with infinite variations for years…dextrously twists together ideas of personal and political intervention so that at one moment you’re considering whether Britain should have gone into Iraq, and the next whether you have the right to censure a friend’s new partner.”
★★★★ Observer

“Played like a side-splitting yet sobering music-hall double act.”
★★★★ The Sunday Times (Paywall)

“The dialogue hurtles along at a furious pace, through tight turns and rapid-fire punchlines… politically engaged but also fiercely uncompromising in its mission to entertain.”
★★★★ Exeunt Magazine

“This engrossing and entertaining piece ends on a powerful visual image of a suicidal mutual dependency that has a rare metaphorical power. Work such as this puts Bartlett and Paines Plough at the forefront of a theatre that is both contemporary and unafraid of challenging the hegemony of bog-standard naturalism.”
The Stage

“Quick-fire, crackling dialogue and the electric performances… super stuff.”
★★★★ The Watford Observer

“Rachael Stirling and John Hollingworth…both give superb performances…a coup de théâtre.”

“Stirling’s performance all the way through is – well, sterling. She leaps, circles, yells, drains glasses, brags, berates, plays the harmonica with terrible despair. She’s both funny and awful, and anyone who has ever dealt with an alcoholic in denial will shiver in recognition.”
Libby Purves / TheatreCat

“Played with great wit and spark by Rachael Stirling and John Hollingworth…it has Bartlett’s astute wit and extraordinary ability to pinpoint the way maturity can suddenly slip away. It asks what we really want from friendship and it also, despite all the wrangling on view, succeeds in catching the nebulous, shifting nature of love.”
Financial Times

And here’s a few quotes from blog reviews…

“Go and spend £20 and get your backside to Watford and see this play. No excuses. Go. It’s the best 90 minutes you’ll have in London for the foreseeable future. I actually don’t want to see another comedy drama play as I’m so bloody certain that now nothing will quite live up to this and nothing will ever get quite such a glowing review… An Intervention was sublime.”
Thumbs Up Thumbs Down

“Stirling and Hollingworth are brilliant together, the ever-changing contours of their interdependency beautifully portrayed as the play winds to its visually stunning and emotionally compelling climax… Bartlett’s customary acuity in exploding the way we relate to each other is as perfectly conceptualised as ever, he remains one of our most exciting young playwrights.”
There Ought To Be Clowns

“Rachael Stirling (for once out of period clothes and away from period stories) is stunning. She has the indefatigable energy of a clown: persistently funny and bursting with wit and desperation, her character is as confused about herself as she is lucid about others. She perfectly captures that person who is the most remarkable in the room, but also the most annoying and the saddest.”
The Other Bridge Project

“The 90 minute run time packs a witty and poignant punch….I’m sure this will transfer into London. I hope it transfers into London because I’d like to see it again.”
Rev Stan

So what are you waiting for? Huh? Book now.

AN INTERVENTION – Production Shots

As the curtain went up on AN INTERVENTION at Watford Palace Theatre last night, the brilliant Kevin Cummins paid us a visit to snap up some production shots from Mike Bartlett’s latest high-powered double-act.

You can see a selection of the images below or view the full set on our Flickr.

Pictured: Rachael Stirling & John Hollingworth. All images by Kevin Cummins.

AN INTERVENTION plays until 3 May at Watford Palace Theatre. Book tickets here.

Join us online:

#AnInterventionPlay @painesplough @watfordpalace

Your guide to…Watford

Watford lies just 17 miles northwest of Central London.  As we excitedly prepare for the world premiere of Mike Bartlett’s AN INTERVENTION at Watford Palace Theatre tonight (playing until 3 May), we consulted with our pals at Watford to bring you this guide to the town’s top 5 hang-outs. Starting with:


“…comprising of over 190 acres of green space stretching from Watford town centre to woodland and countryside to the west of the town.”

With the increased  likelihood of the sun peeping out, the largest public open space in Watford sounds like the perfect place for anything spontaneous – from picnics, to bike-rides or just long walks to take in all that’s on offer around the park.


“…great tasting food, professionally brewed espresso coffee, loose leaf tea and good hospitality.”

Just wait ’til you see the cake menu. Word has spread about their banana loaf and vanilla cupcakes… and once you set foot, you might never leave.  (This will certainly be the case for Team PP).


“…a little bit of the Middle East in the centre of Watford.”

A Mediterranean restaurant located in the heart of Watford, Tarboush is the perfect spot to grab lunch, drinks with friends or spend a chilled out evening dining. Plus – there’s a great Shisha garden.


“Our feel is 1920’s speakeasy meets jazz club with heavy drapes and deep leather sofas to offer a welcome that’s akin to a long hot bath after a rough day.”

A lovely, intimate place for relaxed drinks.


Conveniently located just a few minutes walk from Watford Palace Theatre and Bar Bordega, The Horns might be the perfect place for an all out post-show party. With live music, an impressive selection of drinks and even traditional pub food, this sounds like the perfect place to let your hair down. So, we’ll see you there?

– B.

Mike Bartlett – An Intervention Interview

Here’s an interview Mike Bartlett did with Exeunt Magazine‘s Dan Hutton,  discussing next week’s world premiere of his new play AN INTERVENTION, at Watford Palace Theatre.

Pictured: John Hollingworth and Rachael Stirling. Photo credit: Phoebe Cheong

See below for highlights, or read the full interview here.

What form does An Intervention take?

It’s a double act – two best friends with shared lives and jokes realise they might not be as close as they thought – for various personal and political reasons. And this causes huge upset. As a play it’s all about the two parts and the two actors. We’ve got a fantastic set and production, but there’s something I love about focussing on live performance – the complicity, division, drama and complexity between two people. It’s what an audience comes out to see ultimately. Something live.

Should we, as citizens, ‘intervene’ in general society more regularly?

That’s one of the things the play asks. It’s got to be up to the individual to make a choice – and is related to how much responsibility you think you have for society in general.

Why is it important that theatre engages with these subjects?

Only because it’s part of the world we live in and theatre should be able to address everything and anything. The subject of this play is protest, and politician intervention, but it’s equally about love, betrayal and friendship. Our lives are full of all those things.

Click here for full Exeunt Magazine interview.

AN INTERVENTION plays from 16 April – 3 May 2014.

Book tickets here.

#AnInterventionPlay @painesplough @watfordpalace

AN INTERVENTION: Week three in pictures

After all the table work, in the space of a week and a half we now have the full play on its feet and ended Friday with out first run! Wow, what a marathon of a tennis match it is between these two…!

Here are some of our favourite shots taken by Richard Davenport:

And you can see the rest on our Flickr page here

And if you could ask anything, what would YOU ask Rachael Stirling? The best question gets a video response from Rachael herself, so keep your questions coming in on twitter. You only have until tomorrow! Find us @painesplough with #AnInterventionPlay

Bring on the final week of rehearsals for AN INTERVENTION… Party hats, harmonica lessons and more…

– Kay.

Week 2 – In Watford

So, we moved to Watford, we got the hats out, we were brought to tears in the first rehearsal of the last scene, we had a photoshoot, did some costume fittings… and I could write all about it, or you could watch some of the best bits here:

And to top it all off we ended our sunny second week back in London for Friday@5, which means drinks with team Paines Plough in the Nell of Old Drury  – this time with our special guest Rachael Stirling.

Tune in for week three, for question time with John and Rachael…


And the first week of rehearsals comes to an end!

The first day of rehearsals is always filled with excitement, not without the smallest hint of nerves, and Monday this week was no different as a total of 24 people squeezed into the rehearsal room on the 4th floor of the PP HQ to hear the first read-through of Mike Bartlett’s new play AN INTERVENTION. Staff from Watford Palace Theatre joined the members of the Paines Plough team, the show’s creatives, director James, and cast members Rachel and John for the introductory meet and greet and ‘who’s who’, before James made his welcoming and inspirational introduction to the play and its production…

Since then we’ve been making progress on the play, interspersing Wimbledon theme tune singing with meticulous reading of each page for clues for UNALTERABLE FACTS  and to make lists of QUESTIONS that will inform how each scene is played. Despite not being a naturalistic play, the text is full of subtext about the two’s friendship, which is vital for us to track and unpick. The actors are finding it invaluable in throwing everything up in the air and unearthing all sorts of possibilities for performance that their instinctive choices might not have discovered. The lists are slowly but surely taking up our wall space…!

What’s particularly exciting about the approach Mike and James have taken with the play is to not ‘characterise’ A and B, but instead to enable Rachael and John to find their own relationship within it, through their actions on each other, and their non-stop verbal sparring and game-play.

Here’s an example of what we’ve been looking at for inspiration… We hope you laugh out loud as much as we have!

Things have also got politically heated this week… We’ve had some thought-provoking discussions of protests we’ve been to, the impact of the Syrian crisis on our conscience, and other military interventions our country has been a part of in the past…


And so now that we’ve come to the end of our rehearsal week in London, we’ll be reporting back from Watford next week where we will have made our home in the local Wetherspoons to create our own drunkenness scale (yes it is absolutely VITAL research for the play…!) and will soon be creating our own comedy sketch for you to feast your eyes upon…

Interesting Fact of the Week: Did you know that blue is the last colour that a baby learns to see? Blue and violet have shorter wavelengths and fewer receptors in the retina for visualizing them, so it takes longer for a baby to distinguish them. Interesting…

AN INTERVENTION cast announcement

With our co-producers at Watford Palace Theatre, we are unbelievably thrilled to announce the cast for Olivier award-winner Mike Bartlett‘s new play, AN INTERVENTION.

Incredibly talented film and TV sensation Rachael Stirling will star alongside the equally brilliant John Hollingworth – and we could not dream up a better pairing! Check out their impressive credits below.

Rachael Stirling

Rachael has been twice nominated for an Olivier Award for An  Ideal Husband (West End) and The Priory (Royal Court).

Theatre: VARIATION ON A THEME (Finborough Theatre), MEDEA (Headlong), THE RECRUITING OFFICER (Donmar Warehouse), AN IDEAL HUSBAND (Vaudeville Theatre, West End), A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (The Rose Theatre, Kingston), THE PRIORY (Royal Court), PYGMALION (Theatre Royal Bath, Japan), UNCLE VANYA (Wilton’s Music Hall),  LOOK BACK IN ANGER (Theatre Royal Bath), TAMBURLAINE (Bristol Old Vic), THEATRE OF BLOOD (National Theatre), ANNA IN THE TROPICS (Hampstead Theatre), A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE (Theatre Royal Haymarket), HELPLESS (Donmar Warehouse), DANCING AT LUGHNASA (Arts Theatre &Geord Sq), OTHELLO (Royal Theatre, Glasgow and Bloomsbury Theatre).

Film: SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN (Universal), SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN (BBC Film), CENTURION (Pathe Pictures Int), THE YOUNG VICTORIA (GK Films), DANGEROUS PARKING (Comiche Pictures), THE TRUTH, FRAMED (STV Films Ltd), REDEMPTION ROAD (Enterprise Films Co), TRIUMPH OF LOVE (Recorded Picture Co), ANOTHER LIFE (Another Life Ltd), MAYBE BABY (Inconceivable Films), COMPLICITY (Talisman), STILL CRAZY (Still Crazy Prod Ltd)


Radio: POSSESSION (Pier Productions), HOLD BACK THE NIGHT (BBC Radio 4), THE PALLISERS (BBC Radio 4).


John Hollingworth

Theatre: OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD (Out of Joint Tour and London), MAKING NOISE QUIETLY (Donmar Warehouse), EARTHQUAKES IN LONDON (National Theatre On Tour / Headlong), THE DEEP BLUE SEA (West Yorkshire Playhouse), DESIGN FOR LIVING (The Old Vic), WOMEN, POWER AND POLITICS (Tricycle Theatre), THE POWER OF YES (National Theatre), OBSERVE THE SONS OF ULSTER MARCHING TOWARDS THE SOMME (Hampstead Theatre), FOR KING AND COUNTRY (Theatre Royal Plymouth & UK Tour), PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD (Nuffield Theatre Southampton), IGNITION 2 (Royal Court Upstairs).

Film : CINDERELLA (Disney), ABOUT TIME (Working Title), THE DARK NIGHT RISES (Warner Brothers), THE BURMA CONSPIRACY (Pan-Europeene), GODARD & OTHERS (Poppies Films), PELICAN BLOOD (Ecosse Films), DORIAN GRAY (Ealing Studios).

TV credits include: OUR WORLD WAR (BBC 3), CROSSING LINES (Tandem / NBC), DA VINCI’S DEMONS SEASON TWO (Starz / BBC Worldwide), BREATHLESS (ITV Studios), THE HOUR II (Kudos / BBC America), ENDEAVOUR (Mammoth Screen / ITV), CITY ON FIRE (Juniper / Channel 4), THE MAN WHO CROSSED HITLER (Hardy Pictures / BBC), TWENTY TWELVE I (BBC Television), CASUALTY (Stone City Films / BBC), BEING HUMAN (Touchpaper / BBC), WUTHERING HEIGHTS (Mammoth Screen / ITV).

Radio: DEADHEADING SERIES ONE (Savvy / BBC Radio 4), CRAVEN, SERIES SIX (Red Productions / BBC Radio 4), BERYL: A LOVE STORY ON TWO WHEELS (Savvy / BBC Radio 4), ADVENTURES OF THE SOUL (Sparklab / BBC Radio 3), NUMBER TEN (Parcificus / BBC Radio 4), MURDER IN SAMARKAND (Greenpoint / BBC Radio 4), THE TOWER (BBC Radio 4).

#AnInterventionPlay @painesplough @watfordpalace

Paines Plough turns 40

In 2014, we’re 40 years old. Happy birthday to us. Life begins at 40, right?

Right. So we’re planning our biggest, boldest, most far-reaching programme of work ever, with more plays touring to more places than even we thought possible.

We’ll be announcing the whole shebang in January, with attendant trumpet fanfare. But in the meantime, there’s a little taster of what to expect below, and some words from illustrious PP alumni.

Where it began… In 1974, while they were all working at The Dukes Theatre, Lancaster, actor Chris Crooks asked playwright David Pownall to write a play for him. John Adams agreed to direct it.

Christened over pints of Paines bitter in The Plough pub Bolnhurst, Paines Plough was registered as company no. 1165130 on 1st April 1974.The company opened Pownall’s play – Crates On Barrels – at 6pm on Wednesday 11 September 1975 at the Lyceum Studio, Edinburgh.

128 productions, eight Artistic Directorships, 42 awards and 40 years later, Paines Plough is now the national theatre of new plays – still doing what it has always done, touring the best new plays to every corner of the UK.

“Back in 1982, after seven years on the road, we passed Paines Plough into other hands. Since then we have watched it grow, change and develop into its present strength and reputation.  We feel part of the present company, glad that our aims have lived so long, and especially glad the company is still a stage for new plays.”
John Adams and David Pownall, founders

Paines Plough old skool stylee

James and George:

“It is a true honour to lead Paines Plough in to its fifth decade of touring new plays.

“Talking to our illustrious alumni in the lead up to our 40th anniversary year, it has become clear that Paines Plough is less a company than a movement; generation after generation of the UK’s top directors and playwrights have assembled in our shabby Aldwych offices to conceive some of the most important modern plays before setting off to share them with audiences in every corner of the country.

“That’s exactly what we’ve done since we took over in 2010 – and we hope our 40th anniversary year programme will encapsulate all that is essential about Paines Plough’s contribution to British cultural life.”

With lots more to be announced, our 40th anniversary year will include new plays from playwrights spanning Olivier Award-winner Mike Bartlett and debutant Sam Burns, touring the length and breadth of the country.

The centrepiece of Programme 2014 will be the unveiling of Roundabout, our portable in-the-round auditorium.

Our portable pop-up Roundabout Auditorium

A prototype Roundabout was co-produced with Sheffield Theatres in 2011 and played at Shoreditch Town Hall in 2012. Armed with the experience of these two runs, and the generous support of the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation, Paul Hamlyn Foundation, J Paul Getty Jr Charitable Trust, John Ellerman Foundation and Garfield Weston Foundation, the brand new pop-up theatre will form an integral part of future Paines Plough programmes.

“It’s hard to imagine that Paines Plough is 40 years old.  Its energy and verve remain so youthful, dynamic and daring.  Its work has become a crucial component of the new writing landscape in the UK and long may it thrive.”
Daniel Evans, Artistic Director of Sheffield Theatres

We’ll be resident at the NT Shed for a series of PP Platforms at the start of the 40th anniversary year. Paines Plough alumni – writers, actors and directors – will share their memories and celebrate the crucial part the company has played in their careers to date.

“In 2005 Paines Plough made me their writer in residence and I can honestly say it was the single most important event in my career as a writer. Being a playwright moved from being a dream into being a reality as I got to spend time with people I’d only heard about, people whose books I read and plays I’d seen. I was given the chance to write what I wanted in a place that cared about writing.”
Dennis Kelly, playwright.

On 30 January, in conjunction with the Royal Exchange Manchester and ITC, Paines Plough will host a Small Scale Touring Symposium, inviting leading practitioners, journalists and companies across the UK to share in talks examining current and new aspects of touring theatre.

“For me personally it was a paradigm shift. To discover, encourage and direct the work of some extraordinary writers, to begin to understand audiences, to learn to be part of the landscape of Britain was a privilege and enormous fun. It opened the doors for all my ensuing adventures and for many others too and will always remain thrillingly alive and inspiring in my heart.”
Vicky Featherstone, Artistic Director Royal Court Theatre (Artistic Director of Paines Plough 1997 – 2004)

That’s all you’re getting for now, but stay tuned. Programme 2014 is going to be huuuge.