Playwright Bryony Lavery speaks about her love of Yorkshire
PUBLISHED: 00:00 06 February 2018
Celebrated playwright Bryony Lavery has two plays opening in the UK this month: an adaptation of Brighton Rock at York Theatre Royal and a revival of her successful 1998 play, Frozen, in the West End. Tony Greenway meets her before curtain up
‘Crikey,’ says Bryony Lavery, when I suggest that her name alone should be enough to get a stage production off the ground. From her startled reaction, she obviously isn’t convinced about that, despite being an established name in British theatrical circles — one that’s been celebrated from the West End to Broadway. In truth, though, Yorkshire-born Lavery is probably the most famous playwright you’ve never heard of. The Guardian once described her as ‘one of the best but most consistently underrated playwrights in the country’ despite her CV being full-to-bursting with award-winning theatrical productions, and the odd TV and radio drama, too.
It’s writing for the stage that really captivates her, however. ‘It’s the best, most exciting milieu,’ she says. ‘You have to be rigorous because the audience is right there watching it. I love film and TV but I don’t like writing for it. And, to be perfectly honest, it’s mutual. In order to make TV, you have to work for nothing or have the time to do so. And I’m usually so busy with other projects that I don’t have the opportunity to experiment with television.’ Lavery likens writing a play to playing a game of chess. ‘You’re trying to keep the audience surprised, amused — and not disappointed.’ She laughs. ‘Not that I’m good at chess.’
She is, though, rather good at producing mesmerising theatre. Her 1998 play, Frozen, put her on the theatrical map in both the UK and America and she’s now in the lucky position of only taking on work that she really wants to do. That has included adaptations of Treasure Island (for the National Theatre), Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Brideshead Revisited (both appearing at York Theatre Royal), A Christmas Carol (for the West Yorkshire Playhouse) and, most recently, Our Mutual Friend (for Hull Truck). Her plays include Ilyria, Stockholm, Kursk and Thursday, the latter exploring the 7/7 bombings in London.
This month, her adaptation of the Graham Greene classic, Brighton Rock, premieres at the York Theatre Royal. A stylish noir thriller, it tells the story of a murderous teenage sociopath, Pinkie Brown (memorably played by Richard Attenborough in the 1947 Boulting brothers film), who becomes romantically involved with Rose, a naive 16-year-old waitress.
Lavery had read the original Greene novel years ago, so when she was asked to adapt it by York-based Pilot Theatre, she was intrigued. ‘I read it with new attention,’ she says. ‘And I thought it was fabulous. I love the three main characters, Pinkie, Rose and Ida, who are really strong and recognisable.’
This month, a revival of Frozen also opens in the West End with Suranne Jones and Jason Watkins, and Lavery is hugely excited about it. ‘It’s a play about forgiveness,’ she says. ‘Or, at least, I think it is. But what do I know? I’m only the writer.’ It’s certainly harrowing; the story of a mother coming to terms with the murder of her young daughter at the hands of a serial killer.
Frozen (certainly not to be confused with the Disney film) transferred to London’s National Theatre in 2002 and Broadway in 2004, receiving universally acclaimed reviews and a number of Tony Award nominations. Beforehand, Lavery had written numerous plays, but this one connected with audiences on a whole new level. ‘In retrospect, I can remember being in rehearsals at The National and suddenly thinking: “I’ve got a play on in my national theatre!” I had no idea what to expect from Broadway until we opened there, but found out it’s a very big deal. For Americans, Broadway is about more than just “going to seeing a play”.’
When writing Frozen, Lavery was in mourning after the death of her mother. ‘It was written from a place of huge grief, puzzlement and dreadful personal loss. I think it’s very charged because of that. It’s about mothers and daughters and about loss and at the time I wrote it, I was experiencing all those things in a major way.’
Frozen was the making of Lavery, but it was also very nearly the breaking of her. Some years after its premiere, Dorothy Lewis, an American criminal psychiatrist, claimed that Lavery had used passages for the play from a profile in the New Yorker magazine about her life and work, and from Lewis’s own book, Guilty by Reason of Insanity. The journalist who had written the New Yorker profile later came to Lavery’s defence, while the Guardian noted that the artistic community ‘rallied behind her’. Still, it was a traumatic time.
Did it dent her confidence as a writer? ‘Of course it did.’ So how did she get her creative mojo back after an experience like that? ‘By getting back on the horse and continuing to write,’ says Lavery. ‘It’s no fun being publicly shamed. I made a mistake... but someone thought I had done something vile, which I hadn’t. But it’s hard, and it makes one mindful to be very careful of walking through the world.’ These days she loves writing more than ever, ‘because I’m learning to do it better. You never learn it completely, so it’s always ongoing. And I’ve been doing more and more adaptions because it’s a slightly different skill.’
Lavery was born in Wakefield in 1947. Her family then moved to Batley and, when she was around five, on to Dewsbury. She stayed there until she was 18, when she went to college in London. ‘I didn’t know until I left college that you could earn a living from writing,’ she says. ‘When I was a girl I wanted to be a vet, a comedienne — and I used to spell it “comedienne”, as in “female comedian” — and a nun. Although I think I only wanted to be a nun because I liked the idea of having my own room!’
When her parents retired, they moved to Scarborough. ‘So that’s the part of Yorkshire I would return to,’ she says. ‘I still love Scarborough, but my parents have since died so I don’t get to go there much anymore although I like the whole of the Yorkshire coast and enjoyed a writing week in Whitby recently.’
She hasn’t been back to Dewsbury for a while because she doesn’t have family in the town anymore and ‘it doesn’t look like my childhood. My sister and I took a trip there around 20 years ago but, of course, the mills had gone, so it was very pretty — and I remembered it being quite a “dreich” town, because it used to be the centre of the mungo and shoddy business. It was raining and dark. My sister and I have conversations all the time about our Yorkshire childhood. She says she can remember the sound of the mills in Batley as we went to school, although I don’t, because I’m a couple of years younger than her. Today’s Yorkshire is much more beautiful and modern than the one I grew up in.’
Lavery is similarly upbeat about Yorkshire’s artistic direction. ‘My understanding is that the West Yorkshire Playhouse is thriving,’ she says. ‘Hull seems to be gloriously busy with thriving theatre, and Damien Cruden is running a great building at York Theatre Royal.’
We talk about where the next Godber or Ayckbourn will come from; Lavery can’t say, but she’s excited by the prospect of new talent. ‘Theatre is a live thing so there has to be a change,’ she reasons. ‘The big successes are always a surprise. The thing that invigorates theatre is the unexpected.’