When it was staged last year at Battersea’s Theatre 503, Lou Ramsden’s first play Breed contained one particular moment of almost unbearable tension. It was potent enough to trigger a physical response in the audience; you could hear it in the sharpened intake and release of breath, the uneasy shifting of limbs on the bench seats. Ostensibly about the breeding of fighting dogs, Breed was stained with cruelty; it spread and infected the characters until the home in which they lived was no longer a source of comfort and security but a place of danger and entrapment.
These are themes that recur in Ramsden’s new play Hundreds and Thousands, a co-production from ETT and Buckle for Dust, currently in previews at Soho Theatre. Though the play was written before Breed, it was only returned to later. Both plays, Ramsden explains, “deal with things I’m quite interested in; the ideas of escape and parenthood and growing up, menace and violence, enclosed worlds that are penetrated by outsiders.”
Ramsden favours theatre that “makes use of the claustrophobia of the theatre space. I think one of the things that theatre can do as oppose to TV or film is make you feel claustrophobic; it can build up the tension, put you in a situation you can’t leave. I like playing with that.”
The writers she admires are those who know how to handle tension, those who create situations that get steadily “worse and worse and worse.” She cites Anthony Neilson (whose 2006 play Realism is currently being staged in the main house at Soho), Phlip Ridley and Dennis Kelly as influences (“After the End is one of my favourite plays”), Sarah Kane for the visceral power of her writing and Martin McDonagh for his sickly use of humor. “I love that moment when an audience are laughing along and they find themselves thinking, should I be laughing at this?”
While tension is important to her writing, Ramsden acknowledges that it’s important to maintain a balance. One of things she learnt from Breed was the importance of “pulling back on the violence. There is only so much that people want to see. The character of Allan in Hundreds and Thousands is probably the biggest bully in the play; we’ve tried to give him light and shade and to show that there’s a certain logic to what he does; to show him not just an aggressor.”
Ramsden views Hundreds and Thousands as more of an ‘enclosed play’ than its predecessor, one in which in the characters are “all just knocking against each other; the things that they say and the things that they do influence each other quite dramatically.” The play begins with Lorna, a woman in her forties, moving in with her partner Allan; they’ve been together for six months and she’s yet to see the inside of his house. The opening scenes are disarming; the play has a surprise in store for both Lorna and the audience.