Alistair McDowall is sitting in a small room in the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, surrounded by props. I can’t see him and sometimes I can barely hear him (we’re talking on a crackling phone line) but I can imagine him. It feels right that McDowall, whose plays explore and unpack the power of the imagination, is holed away in such a setting. In fact, he’s already scanned the props for potential; ‘If I want to I could do the whole interview with a crown on my head.’
The image of McDowall hunched over his mobile phone, crown perched on his head, stays with me throughout our chat. It really works. At the grand age of 27, McDowall has notched up 14 plays and all of them possess the glinting, fragile grandeur of a paper crown. His plays invariably involve children and hum with a childlike curiosity and the peculiar wisdom of unfettered thought. They travel to places that only a child’s imagination can access.
Speaking about his own childhood, McDowall admits to being a huge Spielberg fan when growing up: ‘I know he’s not very fashionable but he’s a master storyteller. He’s always been about merging the everyday and the supernatural.’ It’s easy to draw parallels between Spielberg and McDowall. Both men create unapologetically emotional works, hearts emblazoned on the sleeves of their scripts. They are also equally obsessed with the fine line between the humdrum and the otherworldly and the way that love and self-belief might draw these two worlds together.
McDowall’s first main stage play was Brilliant Adventures, which won the prestigious Bruntwood Prize in 2011. The play is set in a rundown estate in Middlesbrough and involves a reticent kid, a time machine, some fierce thugs and a dad on leash. There’s a whiff of Spielberg to this work; the idea that the imagination might take you anywhere you wish but that it is also a powerful and dangerous force, to be treated with the utmost respect. Be careful what you wish for, warn Spielberg and McDowall, because it might just come true.
The double edged nature of the imagination shimmers threateningly in McDowall’s work. It is there in the thugs who parole Luke’s estate in Brilliant Adventures or the live snake that pops up in Talk Show, which played at the Royal Court shorts season last summer. Set in the North East (near McDowall’s hometown of Great Broughton in Yorkshire), Talk Show revolves around a kid named Sam who spends his days in his bedroom, creating a radio show. There’s a dangerous glint to Sam’s imaginings and the sense that his dreams (interestingly, McDowall draws parallels between writing and dreaming when we chat) might herald the good, the bad and the downright ugly.
Sam’s radio show guests hint at something dangerous beyond his bedroom walls. One guest casually recalls a vicious fight; ‘His eye just – pops in his fucking skull!’ A real snake – slithery and shit scary – also makes an appearance. It says something about McDowall’s faith in the capacity of theatre that he gave little thought to including a live animal in his play; ‘The snake in Talk Show didn’t feel weird to me at all. It was only when the actual snake turned up that I realised it was a weird ask.’
I ask McDowall if he worries that the surreal elements to his plays – the time machines, snakes and ghosts – might mark him out as a gimmick artist? ‘I worry about that but I cannot help it. It’s just who I am. My kind of inkling about why it happens is that in my head life is just so vibrant and weird and colourful and scary and exciting and terrifying and miserable and joyous and everything all at the same time that I just feel that I get to a certain point when I think, “A living room and two chairs just isn’t enough.”’
McDowall’s latest play involves another surreal prop; a super hero cape. Captain Amazing is a one-man play about a young dad called Mark and the cape he wears to amuse and console his daughter. Like most of McDowall’s work, Captain Amazing explores the unlimited terrain of the child’s imagination: ‘[Emily’s] imaginative world gives [Mark] freedom and some kind of expanded vocabulary and imaginative world. Again, it’s a story about the importance of the imagination and story-telling.’
McDowall is keenly aware of the recurring presence of children in his work: ‘All of my plays are usually about childhood in some way. Either there are children in the play or they are about childhood or there are characters who cannot let go of their childhood, who are trapped in their childhood or didn’t have a childhood.’ Children allow McDowall to nudge his plays in strange directions: ‘Children are backbone of Captain Amazing. They are very good at pushing things into different areas you weren’t expecting. They are going to ask the weirdest questions. Things that they think are exciting are completely surprising. It’s a very alien frame of reference. A 50 year old bloke and a 7 year old girl might as well be different animals.’
There is a something about growing up – a magic and a mystery – that McDowall does not want to forget: ‘I think I’ve never quite left my childhood behind. I never hit that point where the stuff I liked as a kid seemed stupid to me.’ Childhood, argues McDowall, might just be as powerful and dramatic as life gets: ‘It’s elemental when you’re younger. When you’re older it’s about ideas. But when you’re a kid it hits you in the guts.’
Captain Amazing is currently touring and will be at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 3rd – 5th April; Burton Taylor Studio, Oxford, 8th – 9th April; Soho Theatre, London 16th April – 4th May and Live Theatre, Newcastle, 7th – 17th May 2014