Jack Thorne wrote a lot of shit plays before he started writing good ones. That’s not me being harsh – he tells us that himself in the candid introduction to Plays: One. ‘I’d written about twenty-two plays before the first play in this volume,’ he says. ‘I occasionally get them out and have a read – thinking maybe there’s a thought or an idea or even a turn of phrase that I could use for something new. There’s not. They’re dire. Even now I’m not quite sure why I persevered.’
When I’m allowed to be, I’m a script reader for any theatres or new writing programmes that will have me, and it was the idea that there might be a nub of talent somewhere in even the seemingly weakest scripts that got me started as a reader. But what intrigues me about Thorne is the claim that there can be nothing, no hint in the first more than twenty scripts a writer produces that he or she has real promise – then it’s BOOM, theatre, out of nowhere. I guess it’s nice to think that people can surprise you.
The script that rewarded Thorne’s perseverance, after years of rejections from different theatres, was When You Cure Me, a beautiful and emotionally exhausting play about being seventeen and in love and picking up the pieces of your life after something terrible has happened; how to do that, and whether you even want to. It’s also about long-term illness. In the introduction, Thorne speaks very confessionally and with charming understatement about his own long-term illness – a chronic allergy to heat that forced him to drop out of university and move back in with his parents. The condition left Thorne lonely, debilitated, and overwhelmingly dependent on writing.
I suppose with any collection you’re looking for shared themes; you want to be able to say to somebody, I never realised until I read them all together, but every work of so-and-so’s is really about, you know, not being allowed to wear hats or something. But here, Thorne’s not so much a voice you hear in every script as the only clear link between quite a varied bunch: When You Cure Me relates to his illness, 2nd May 1997 is about his love affair with Labour and eventual crushing disappointment with Tony Blair, Bunny about the time he spent in Luton. ‘These plays are,’ he tells us, ‘apologies in advance, overwhelmingly about me.’ That fact doesn’t overwhelm the reader (you don’t need to know it to enjoy them) so much as cast the volume in a certain kind of light.
I’ve only seen a couple of things by Thorne on stage – his adaptations of Stuart: A Life Backwards and Let the Right One In and his New Connections play, Burying Your Brother in the Pavement – none of which are in Plays: One, but he’s a naturalistic and funny writer throughout the collection. Some playwrights are a great watch but a hard read – Thorne isn’t one of them. There are also lots of little visual touches, stage direction asides that make it easy to watch each play in your mind’s eye. I knew a director years ago who used to cross out all the stage directions before he did absolutely anything else and he’d have fucking hated Jack Thorne, but I like it – he’s made reading these plays as much a treat for the visually minded among us as they are to see staged.
I’ve already mentioned the introduction a few times, but even if you’re familiar with these plays, it’s worth getting a copy just for that. There’s an interesting description of being taught by Simon Stephens on the Royal Court Young Writers Programme; Thorne’s group also included Laura Wade, to whom he eventually dedicated 2nd May 1997, and he claims to have spent the intervening years puzzling over Stephens’s assertion that ‘every writer has a myth. A story that they return to again and again – something which drives them – something which gives their plays a sense of themselves.’ Thorne doesn’t know what his own myth is, ‘but I think it has something to do with help – what help is, and the struggle we all go through trying to help others, and perhaps what failure to help looks and feels like.’
It’s easy to see why Thorne thinks that, but I also think it’s interesting that he puts the agency, there, in the hands of people doing the helping, when so many more of his central characters seem to be the people others are failing to help. For instance, to what extent Katie, the speaker in Bunny, fails or succeeds at helping somebody else is left semi-ambiguous – but she’s certainly been failed by the people around her. She can’t stop thinking and can’t reach out to anyone, and in a particularly telling moment relates a story about finding her mother crying because she’s ‘“just so worried about you.” And I said, “Why?” And she looked at me and said she didn’t know.’
There are a few moments like this, when the characters who are speaking to us are nearly-but-not-quite reached by a loved one, and it doesn’t work, and they’re left with nobody but us for company. Overwhelmingly, Thorne favours a smaller cast in these scripts; two of them are monologues, two duologues, one a series of duologues. He seems to be interested in one-on-one intimacies, deliberate (the couple sharing a bathroom in Mydidae), accidental (the teenage boys asleep in each other’s arms in 2nd May 1997) and failed (Katie and her mother; Rob and his brother in Stacy). Interested, I suppose, in the ways intimacy with another person does or does not console us; the people we believe will be able to help us, and what that means when they can’t.
Exeunt’s review of Jack Thorne’s Mydidae
Exeunt’s review of Jack Thorne’s Bunny