14 July 2014

This One Night: True West

Or: Another Blog Trail!

First Draft is one of Manchester’s excellent monthly events – it slants toward theatre, so it’s slightly different to the literature & story-heavy nights I often go to. Abi & Rachel, the organisers, invite performers of all stripes – theatre, yes, but also comedy, music, literature – to try out material early, before it’s polished, before it’s perfect. It’s not for some sort of art school-style submission to criticism from the group – rather, it’s because the first draft can be the most exciting draft.

It’s the draft that, after months of re-drafting and cutting and adding and cutting again, ends up actually being 2 stories & 1 novel & 3 other stories besides which really belong in the bin. It’s the hit and miss draft. Or sometimes, it’s just the miss draft.

For example:

Abi’s invited me to do a few First Draft nights, and I’ve found them really useful. My first time, I worked very hard on not working very hard on the story I was telling. I wrote the story on a Sunday, walked onstage on the Monday and read out the first draft of my story almost completely unedited.

It was the fastest I’ve ever given up on a story in my life. Ordinarily, if I’m writing a story, but it’s not working, I wrestle with it for weeks or months before I’ll finally admit there’s something wrong with how I’m writing it. It takes me ages to think maybe I’m trying to stick too many stories into one, or layering too many wonky metaphors... and only then will I leave it to be picked over for scraps to weave into later stories. But getting up and reading that story – out loud, to strangers & early – made me recognize it for what it was. A miss draft.


The lovely folks over at First Draft have expanded on the ‘This One Book’ blog trail, which keen readers will remember from this post.

They invited me to contribute to their ‘This One Night’ blog trail, wherein, I will tell you about a live performance that has been significant to me. Read the first installment of “This One Night” on the First Draft blog, a beautifully told tale of Abi’s first Macbeth.

Here I go:

Until very recently, live performance, especially theatre, has never held much interest for me.

Partly, this is down to Bob-Fosse-based trauma (“Oh, no, they’re coming off the stage. Into the audience. No. Oh, please don’t throw the glitter at me… Oh, no. Oh, please, please oh the spandex. Oh, no no no.”)

And terrible musicals.
Image from: www.goodspeed.org/productions/2006/pippin

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve seen some amazing productions. Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth in St Peter’s for the Manchester International Festival was brilliant. Daniel Kitson’s Tree: stunning, funny, harsh. The Confederacy of Dunces: fantastic. As a kid, I really flipping loved theatre magic. My sister once made the mistake of taking me to a Penn and Teller show – I spent hours that night telling my parents what the tricks looked like, in an attempt to figure out how they worked. Magicians will tell you: that is the wrong way to go about it. What a trick looks like has nothing to do with how it works.

Generally, cinema has been more my style. Cinema feels more immersive – the camera follows characters, rather than characters presenting themselves on a stage. I like edits: I like that I don’t have to actually watch a character storm out of a room and slam the door. I like that the actors won’t notice if I think it’s terrible and walk out halfway.


Jonti & I had travelled to Glasgow to see it at The Citizens Theatre – one of Jonti’s best mates, Phill Breen, was the director. Jonti had told me Phill was amazing. I was expecting something rather theatre-y.

The curtains opened on True West. I gasped. For the next two hours (or so, I can’t remember how long it was) I forgot that I was watching a stage, that there were real people presenting themselves as characters on a stage & that walking might ever be a thing I would want to do again.

Image by Pete Le May petelemay.co.uk

I just watched, transported, immersed.

Written by Sam Shepherd, True West is the story of two brothers – one an uptight do-gooder and the other a complete disaster – who are pent up in their mother’s house for a weekend. The do-gooder tries to write a play. The disaster, with no small threat of violence, horns in on the play. The do-gooder eventually loses his shit and nearly strangles the disaster. And then their Zoloft-happy mother comes home.

Throughout the play, Breen ratcheted up the tension between the brothers to unbearable levels – the house seethed with neuroses, thinly guised contempt and frayed tempers. The stage design, which included a ceiling, floor and three full walls, made the house feel claustrophobic & airtight.

I’ve never seen a ceiling built onto a stage before. Usually, lighting rigs are up there. The ceiling enhanced the claustrophobia, but it also meant Breen’s lighting designer had to get damn creative.

The actors made deeply flawed characters sympathetic & simultaneously unlikeable.

And somewhere between the staging, the lighting and the acting, this play became cinematic. It took on colours I’ve never seen on stage before.

I’ve never seen a show like it.

As we left that night, I told Jonti, “Your friend Phill is some kind of genius.”

Oh, oh, I cannot express to you how it gripped me.

Maybe that’s because I keep telling you what this show looked like.

Let me instead tell you this. After seeing True West, I couldn’t sleep for hours. I was – and still am – trying to figure out how it worked.


From 4th September to 4th October this very year you, too, can see the brilliant Phillip Breen's True West at London's Tricycle Theatre.


Get your tickets now.

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