Features Edinburgh Fringe 2018 Published 19 August 2018

Tom Wells: “We want to bring people in”

Playwright Tom Wells chats to Frey Kwa Hawking about gay representation in theatre, making work outside London, and the power of panto.
Frey Kwa Hawking

Andrew Finnigan in ‘Drip’ by Tom Wells. Photo: Joss Moore

Liam and Caz are fifteen, and it’s their time to shine. Specifically, by winning their school’s Project Prize this year, finally. More specifically, by becoming Bev Road Baths’ first ever synchronised swimming team. There’s only one problem: Liam can’t swim.

This is Drip, set to be the Edinburgh Fringe debut of playwright Tom Wells. It’s a watery, glittery one-man musical created with Matthew Robins, and which will play Paines Plough’s pop-up space the Roundabout for the Fringe ahead of a national tour and dates at Bush Theatre in December. Wells explains that the Roundabout is “a beautiful space, and when it tours we like to have it in places a theatre wouldn’t normally be, a surprise: we want to bring in people who wouldn’t normally plan to go to the theatre at all,” Wells says.

This kind of ‘bringing in’ is a defining feature of Wells’ plays, to which Drip is no exception: they’re plays which shun the snobbish, elevating the details of ordinary, unglamorous life, such as the sharing of broken biscuits between friends to the point of ritual, or the way a family can be formed from a folk trio.

This lack of pretension has furnished him with a love for panto – often the first or only theatre most of us experience, after all – and he casts his development of pantos for Middle Child and the Lyric Hammersmith as experiences which made him feel “a little bit braver about engaging with an audience like that, so directly. It’s such a distinct genre: current, topical jokes overlaid onto an existing and familiar story and weird playfulness with genders and sexuality. I’m talking about the good kind of panto here though, not rubbish, cynical panto.”

I ask (because I can’t resist) if there’s this same direct, communal sense of spirit in Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again (2018), which I know he’s seen. He recommends it; everyone in his showing throughout seemed as if they wanted to get up and dance, and in the end they did. Did he? “In my way. More films should definitely end like that, with a whole extra bit with Cher. Exactly like that.”

Wells works from and describes Hull as home, having moved back following a period living in London. It’s something he believes more theatremakers should feel they have a choice about: “Our increasingly outdated value system leads us to think of London as the be all and end all of the arts, but I’m connected to Hull.” And it’s the efforts of companies such as Middle Child, whose Writers Group Wells leads in association with London’s Royal Court, which have produced increasing support and opportunities for creatives in the city. Their base in The Darley’s Arms offers space for an in-house company, rehearsal rooms and, of particular pride to Wells, a theatre text library for Hull residents with help from Nick Hern and Oberon Books, and Paines Plough.

“These ecosystems of culture already exist all around the country,” he tells me. “All we’re doing is supporting them and making them richer.” That several of his plays including Drip, Jumpers for Goalposts (Paines Plough / Watford Palace / Hull Truck) and Folk (Birmingham Rep / Watford Palace / Hull Truck) are based in Hull or tiny coastal Yorkshire towns seem part of this, clear markers of his attention to the stories happening outside of London, to the lives happening constantly somewhere else to our often London-focused gazes.

Drip is the latest collaboration with Robins, his musical partner previously in Broken Biscuits (Paines Plough / Live Theatre), in which Drip’s actor Andrew Finnigan also featured. Drip’s director Jane Fallowfield reunited the two to try writing a musical together for her company Script Club, though their process together, he laughs, tends to still be something they figure out as they go. “Perhaps it’s just who we are. I bring lyrics to Matthew, we send bits and pieces to each other, and I come back to what I’ve done after he’s had an eye over it. He helps point out my idiosyncrasies and the funny shapes to things – it feels organic. Our time in the NT Studio [as part of the Musical Theatre Group] was really helpful for that.”

Drip continues one of the most – perhaps strangely – distinctive things in Well’s plays. Though his gay characters might be uncool, might be lonely, they’re rarely alone. Instead, they’re embedded in their immediate context, the mundanity and warmth of the life around them: in Broken Biscuits, the three characters are all sixteen, on the edge of receiving their GCSE results, and in dire need of reinventing themselves according to self-appointed leader Megan, though only Ben is gay. Gay characters in Wells’ plays have friends; their sexualities might feed into their (often teenage) uncertainties, but won’t define them. Not while there’s a five-a-side football tournament to win (Jumpers for Goalposts), a band to pull together (Broken Biscuits) or a synchronised routine to perfect in the face of a really fit trainee-lifeguard and your lack of real swimming skills, in the case of Drip.

This is in part a reaction to the gay representation in media Wells consumed growing up, as especially for bookish kids, we agree, there’s not too much hope for the future to be found in the pages of Giovanni’s Room. “In my local library once, I found a book called Two Weeks with the Queen [by Morris Gleiztman], which featured a gay relationship viewed through the eyes of a child protagonist who doesn’t see anything wrong with it. I used to get the bus from the library round the back of British Home Stores nearby, and because of that book, I think I probably missed it that day.”

He points towards musicals like Everybody’s Talking About Jamie as something that he might have found “bolstering, somehow” if he’d seen them when he was younger. He singles out Fun Home, which he saw recently at the Young Vic with Fallowfield. “You could see the effect on the faces of everyone around you, particularly at the line ‘Can you feel my heart saying hi?’ [in ‘Ring of Keys’] That seemed to capture the whole thing in one lyric.” He has a healthy appreciation for the historical solidarity between queer men and women in his work, too: after being dropped from the Lesbian Rovers, Viv takes over Barely Athletic, the central team of Jumpers for Goalposts, and Caz, the female best friend forcing Liam to take to the pool in Drip, is revealed to not be straight as early as Liam, in exactly the same to-the-point breath.

He also singles out Peter Gill’s The York Realist, whose co-production between the Donmar Warehouse and Sheffield Theatres this year he caught at the Sheffield Crucible. “My extended family are all rooted in agriculture in some way”, he says, “and I grew up on a farm in Withernsea myself. It was really touching to see how the main character didn’t reference his sexuality explicitly and his family didn’t have to bring it up either: there was too much else going on.” The couple at the heart of The York Realist work out where it is they belong eventually, which is something Wells tries to show his characters coming to recognise. “For me, it’s the theatre. Which is…” He trails off. My suggestion: poncy. His: wanky. We both agree, however, that we love it, and that this poncy, wanky option is one we want for everyone.

I find the same delicacy of touch in Wells’ plays that he admires in The York Realist; happy refigurings of the same bittersweet journey. His characters are often losers, overlooked, people who see themselves as “a bit rubbish at life,” he laughs. But their families are accepting of them, and they do indeed realise where they belong – whether that’s in the pool, or out of it.

In Drip, Liam sits in his bedroom and stares at the Spiderman action figure he still has on his bookcase. Sometimes he imagines it talking to him. What Spiderman tells him is that everything might just be fine.

Drip is on at Paines Plough’s Roundabout space at Summerhall from 20th-26th August. More info here. It also tours to Bush Theatre from 3rd to 22nd December – more info here.

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Frey Kwa Hawking

Frey Kwa Hawking works as a dramaturg in London. He likes to go to the theatre and the cinema. Sometimes they let him in. He is trans and Malaysian-Chinese. He always orders xiao long bao. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @absentobject

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