Bobby Winner Ten Storey Love Song (adapted by Luke Barnes from the Richard Milward novel) is a play cum techno gig about five wretched tower-block inhabitants who deserve better from life. Broadway Baby’s Oliver Simmonds asks Paul Smith, artistic director of Hull-based Middle Child theatre about reacting to Brexit, unlikable characters, and (sort-of) being called a Nazi.
Theatre has a duty to look at those voices which you don’t always hear onstage
Why are you attracted to the novels of Richard Milward?
There’s something about his prose that’s explosive and electric and feels true. It’s completely absorbing—he’s brave in form; he’s brave in content. Everything I’ve read of his, I’ve felt energised by it afterwards.
You mention form; the Edinburgh show is different to the one you mounted in Hull. What’s changed?
The Hull Truck Studio’s massive, so it was originally made for a big studio that has to reach really far back, so it was much less direct and much less immediate in relation to its audience. In between the original production at Truck and the one here we just wanted to have a much more live relationship and a much more direct engagement with our audience.
In terms of the future of show, are you planning small or big?
It depends. We’re kind of open. With our previous show, Weekend Rockstars, we sometimes toured it to massive nightclubs. Sometimes to intimate pubs. Sometimes to studio theatre spaces. So our concern isn’t so much about the space but about the audience it can attract, so we tend to look at who we’re going to get in to talk to, because we’re not interested in just preaching to the converted about certain issues.
Brexit happened in between the original production and now. What did that do?
How we look at the show has changed; how we read it and the things we take from it feel, as with most plays now, completely different since that day happened. The morning after Brexit we were all sat, stunned as a company, and one of the first things we started talking about is how it affected Ten Storey.
I also noticed on Twitter that lots of people aggressively blamed the people who voted Leave—I was a Remain voter, but I don’t think blaming places like Middlesbrough that voted primarily Leave is the answer. It’s more about looking at the root causes of why people feel isolated, of why people feel like they do and the things that they’ve been fed that’ve led to that decision.
Some of the play’s characters are unlikeable. Would you say the story redeems these people, or is there a better term for what it’s doing?
Richard himself calls it “a lovesong to a loveless Teesside”, which, I think, is the closest thing we’ve found. There’s lots of love in it, but these characters are often products of a loveless world that has forgotten about them, or that doesn’t care for them, or that pidgeonholes them; for us, that’s why it’s called Ten Storey Love Song.
It’s hard: what Richard’s writes is truth, and what Luke [Barnes] searches for in his adaptations is truth. This story comes from Richard living in a ten-storey tower block in Middlesbrough and he said, essentially, that all you hear there is partners making love or fighting. So it all starts from a place of truth, from real people that he knows.
It’s a sympathetic play, but there was one reviewer who likened the show to Nazi art, calling it anti-intellectual and anti-queer (among other titles). What did you make of that review?
It was shocking at first because as soon as you see that word you go “Oh my god, someone’s called me a Nazi”. But Andrew [Haydon] is careful to qualify in his review that he’s talking about a really specific strand of anti-intellectualism. And the characters in the play are anti-intellectual at times. They feel isolated by certain things and, as I say, all we can do is be sure that this comes from a place of truth. The things that Bobby experiences when his art becomes commodified or when he gets used as a working class tool—they come from a place of truth.
And we’re not anti-intellectual as a company; we overtalk every single decision and our approach to working is definitely intellectual.
It seemed ironic given the liberal pledges on your company’s website. Could you talk about those?
We want to be a progressive theatre company which makes a difference. We think theatre needs to change or it’s doomed. We want to make work that’s provocative, and we don’t want to sanitise. When I go the theatre, I feel that characters are often sanitised towards a liberal ideal - which would be lovely, but theatre also has a duty to look at those voices which you don’t always hear onstage. I’m just not interested in lots of liberals watching liberals onstage talking about being liberal. Sometimes theatre does need to be more provocative and that may involve hearing things we disagree with, things that may force a reaction out of us.
There’s a quote from the show, too good to spoil here, that criticises tokenistic gestures to the working classes in theatre. Do you agree with it?
Just because a character says it doesn’t necessarily mean we, as a company, agree with it; but often at the Fringe, or in the theatre in general, if a northern accent is used, it’s used for a comedic, silly character, or something like that, and I think the Fringe is really interesting in terms of class and northern stories. They are rarer. You can see that commodification of working-class artists in music, in theatre—in all forms, really. And I think Bobby’s experience of London was that for him, but again, I’m saying it was his experience for him. It’s not for us to say because we live in Hull, not London, that everyone should think that way.
To wrap it up, Middle Child just been made associate company with Paines Plough. How did that come about?
Both companies believe in new writing and the need to attract new audiences in new ways. We’ve always been inspired by their work, and they’ve been reading our blogs, our values and (hopefully) saw that there was something in us. They went to Weekend Rockstars and liked Ten Storey and we moved on from there. We’re buzzing to see how that relationship can develop.
Ten Storey Love Song plays until the 29th at the Pleasance Dome. Find the company at www.middlechildtheatre.co.uk and @middlechildhullFull. Edinburgh listing: http://www.broadwaybaby.com/shows/ten-storey-love-song/713474