Jack Thorne is a little frustrated. At only 34, as the award-winning writer of edgy teen drama Skins, co-writer with Shane Meadows of This Is England ’86 and creator of the criminally short-lived dark fantasy series The Fades, he has accomplished an impressive amount. But when it comes to writing for the stage, he’s chafing at what he sees as his limitations.
While his TV shows bristle with multiple characters and plotlines, his plays tend to focus on only a couple of people (sometimes, as in Stacy, just one person), gradually peeling back the layers of their lives. When, on a wet Tuesday in a no-nonsense boozer next to Mansion House, I ask him why this is, he grapples with his answer for a while.
“When I’m writing, I need to see. Do you know what I mean?” he asks. On The Fades, the location manager became an “integral part of the storytelling because he found all these amazing places which I then rewrote the script for.” That’s why, on stage, without this spur of “cut to, cut to, cut to”, Thorne says he has largely stuck to the single-room format: “because if it’s in a room I can see it.”
“That’s just my limitation as a theatre writer at the moment,” he continues. “I’m actually trying to write bigger plays.” He smiles wryly as he brings up his co-written attempt from last year, the National’s coolly received global warming parable Greenland. “It didn’t go so well. But actually that was really important to me in terms of working out how to write bigger. Do you know what I mean?”
“Do you know what I mean?” is a recurring beat with Thorne. Cumulatively – if unintentionally – it’s a deflection that reflects his discomfort with being asked to analyse his work. He’s friendly and likeable, but it’s hard to get him to talk about writing in the abstract. His words come in a compulsive rush or dry up entirely. “It’s very easy to sound pretentious about this shit, and I don’t want to sound pretentious,” he says apologetically.
His aversion to “pretentiousness” is part of what makes Thorne – swamped in a baggy hoodie, hair unruly, when we meet – such a good writer. His creative world isn’t polished; his characters don’t moralise or fit neatly into categories. And limitation or not, in his best plays, his tight focus on a small number of people puts human life under a lens in a way that feels honest and grippingly real.
Unsurprisingly, he shrinks from my praise of the messy naturalism of his dialogue. “It’s good that you think that, but I don’t really have anything intelligent to say apart from that,” he replies, before adding: “But, yeah, thanks!” However, he cautiously admits to being proud of his latest play, Mydidae, which opens in Soho Theatre’s Soho Upstairs space tomorrow. “I think it might be the best thing I’ve written. I could be entirely wrong. But the rehearsal room is really thrilling. I’m having a lovely time.”
Mydidae is another two-hander, but this time the set-up was determined by new-writing theatre company DryWrite. “They work by provocation,” Thorne explains. “And their provocation to me, with this, was to write something set entirely in a bathroom.” Keen not to spoil the plot, all he’ll reveal is that the play is “about a couple going through a very difficult day.”
The title, Latin for ‘Midas Fly’, gestures at the couple’s claustrophobia as they work through their shared sense of guilt and anger over a recent tragedy while in the uncomfortably intimate space of their bathroom. “That feeling of people who are stuck in this place, like trapped flies” is the sensation that Thorne hopes he has captured.
This mundane, almost defiantly un-dramatic simile exists in the same world as the fraying suburbia of Skins, or the partied-out landscape of This Is England ‘86. Everyday life, in all of its bleak and sometimes grimly funny detail, fires Thorne up. Whatever his doubts on the theatre front, it’s this that keeps writing “the best thing in my life, by some degree.”
Whether by looking inward – “when I’m upset, writing helps me to process stuff” – or, in This Is England ’86, working out “the people Shane’s characters had become” since the end of Meadows’s film This Is England (set a few years earlier) that spawned the series, making the adults and teenagers he writes feel real is Thorne’s overriding goal. “Telling their truthful story is the all-important thing,” he says.
It’s this that connects shows like This Is England ‘86 with The Fades, which beds its tale of an ordinary teenager with special powers (Ian de Caestecker) in a humdrum, familiar world. Thorne is a lifelong sci-fi and fantasy fan, but he was inspired by Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence of novels to write The Fades as much by its Basingstoke setting as anything else.