Apologies for the time that has passed since my last post. As things have opened up, life seems to have got busier for everyone.
The last series of posts that I wrote featured the SILTings festival and the many ingenious ways that LV21 found to continue bringing high quality cultural experiences to Gravesham, despite restrictions on indoor events and social gatherings outside.
Well we’ve come a long way, and on 28th October LV21 are hosting their first onboard ticketed performance since lockdown in March 2020, and it promises to be a most interesting and entertaining evening.
The Plant is a ‘devised play’ with live traditional music, written by Greg Lawrence and Jeremy Scott, directed by Dave Turner, and performed by other members of The Plant Assembly Theatre Cooperative .
It explores the impact of the Brexit referendum and the divisions it intensifies in an imagined community.
Based around a car factory, known as The Plant, the story has at its centre a young couple, Maddie and Niall, and their attempt to build a life together in the shadow of change.
Three performances, the first on LV21, pay tribute to Robbie Humphries, the play’s original director, who died of cancer in February 2019, before he could see his vision realised.
How it all started
In 2016, after the UK had voted for Brexit, Greg Lawrence, a writer living in Whitstable, wrote a short story Heads or Tails in the Darkness about a young couple. One had voted leave the EU while the other voted remain. The story explored the impact of their differences on their relationship.
From that story grew the idea for a play, inspired by the experiences of the workers at the Nissan car plant in Sunderland, before and after the EU referendum.
On Brexit night, Sunderland was the first district to declare for ‘leave’. This was a surprise to many people, as Nissan was the main employer in Sunderland and employees had been warned time and again, that a vote to leave could jeopardise their jobs. Nissan said that World Trade Organisation tariffs would render its business in the UK unsustainable.
Greg Lawrence was intrigued. ‘I thought, wow, I wonder what’s going on there?’
Fascinated, Greg followed the developing situation in Sunderland, thinking that it might be a possible source for a story, and he wasn’t disappointed.
In the weeks following the ‘leave’ vote, behind closed doors, Nissan and the Government held talks about the future of the car plant.
‘I got an image in my head of these people waiting outside the negotiations for a decision that was completely out of their hands,’ Greg explains. ‘And the fragility of the situation, where someone else is making a decision and your entire future is hanging on it, reminded me of so many things that have happened in our past – the primary industries going and all those communities being broken and dying out.’
Greg approached Jeremy Scott, a musician, writer and an academic at the University of Kent, and two theatrical professionals, Robbie Humphries and Dave Turner, to discuss turning his ideas into a play.
‘Rather than just writing the script myself, I wanted to develop it through improvisation, using lots of theatrical devices and tools to see how it would grow,’ Greg explains. ‘And based on a couple of very powerful theatrical productions I’d seen, I wanted to explore how we could use music to help set the scene – the time and place.’
All three collaborators loved the idea. They contacted a group of local actors who already met regularly to improvise, and secured some rehearsal space through Jeremy’s connections at the University of Kent. Then, once a month The Plant Assembly Theatre Cooperative got together to work on the project.
Later, after they had secured funding from Arts Council England to perform the play across Kent, the Cooperative held auditions, drawing their cast from Kent and South London.
Robbie Humphries was to direct the play. It was his job to explore, through improvisation, the impact of Brexit and the issues it stirred up for the factory, the community and individual characters.
‘We had a few characters in mind,’ says Jeremy Scott. ‘There was a young couple, Maddie and Niall, from very different backgrounds and with opposing views on Brexit, who have come together in this context and tried to forge a relationships. Then there was Niall’s dad, the union representative; Niall’s best friend; the factory manager, the local MP and the workers themselves.’
The improvisation sessions were filmed, and afterwards Greg and Jeremy worked together to select the most interesting parts of the improvised dialogue, and turn them into a written script.
These extracts, Are You Calling My Workforce Diesel, illustrate how much the final production drew upon the improvisations of the actors. In these clips they are: Jane Bowhay, Adam de Ville and Grant Simpson.
Production was fluid and dynamic process. As well as receiving footage of the improvisations, the writers were able to feed ideas for the narrative back into the improvisation process, via director, Robbie.
‘We realised that we needed a scene where the two main characters meet for the first time,’ Greg remembers. ‘So Robbie worked with the actors, using a drama technique to get that for us. He did the scene three times – one where the characters weren’t allowed to say anything, one where the couple could use just one word, and a third where they could talk normally. For the script Jeremy and I preferred the second option, as we liked the use of body language and movement in the play. It was lovely, so natural and romantic.’
There was also a research angle to the project. A cast member, Jonathan Fitchett, was studying for a PhD looking at improvised dialogue and how it can become dramatic, and interesting to people in a theatrical setting. The videoed improvisations fed into that research and the outcomes of the research helped inform the acting and writing process.
From script to performance
After about a year, the script was ready and the Cooperative took stock.
‘The first reading of the play that we did was about three hours long and it was awful!’ Greg laughs. ‘So Robbie suggested that we perform extracts from the whole, just enough to give a sense and the essence of what the play is about. So we did that and we thought that it worked really well as a piece in itself. Sadly, Robbie passed away by the time of the performance in April 2019. And although we developed it a little more since, that version is pretty much what we have now.’
The final play, which lasts about 90 minutes, now contains some written elements, others taken directly from the improvisation sessions, and some that are a little bit of both. The writers have also quoted verbatim, some remarks from the people of Sunderland, about the referendum, the vote and the negotiations.
In April 2021, the Cooperative performed The Plant, script-in hand, to some acclaim, as part of the Union season at the Gulbenkian Arts Centre at the University of Kent.
An essential element of The Plant is the traditional music, so much so that the writers refer to the music as ‘the seventh cast member’. Four musicians perform on the stage throughout the piece.
‘I’d always wanted to write a musical but I have no musical talent,’ Greg laments. ‘Jeremy on the other hand plays and sings in folk bands and is fluent in folk music – its chords, its lyrics and its significance.’
But the play is not a musical, both writers insist. It is a play with music.
‘The cast perform the music themselves, but it is definitely not a singing and dancing number,’ Jeremy says. ‘In The Plant the songs and tunes don’t come from the characters, except on one or two occasions. Rather they come from the air. They bring out some of the central themes and are the voice the community, retelling their lives, stories and experiences, which are just as relevant now as at the time the music evolved. Just as you might use a soliloquy in a play to expand on a particular theme, the songs and tunes in the play are the soliloquies of the people.’
You can read more about how music is used in the play and listen to some of the songs used, here.
A long time coming
The Plant has been a long time in the making. It started with Brexit in 2016 and although performances were booked for 2020, these were cancelled because of Covid. The Cooperative kept the spirit of the production going online during lockdown but inevitably with such a long break, some participants moved on.
But the delay also had some very positive consequences.
‘When Robbie passed away in 2019, we lost our director but we were lucky that the actors rallied and stepped up to help put on a great performance,’ Greg says. ‘We really wanted Dave Turner to take over as director but Robbie and Dave were best friends and, at the time, Dave felt that, emotionally, he just couldn’t do it. Later, he did feel able to take on the role and has directed the current production, which I’d always hoped he would do.’
Robbie’s wife, Becks Hill, has also returned to the production, as Maddie.
‘So every step along the way has been a sort of tribute to Robbie,’ Greg smiles. ‘We’ve mentioned him in programmes, in the script, everywhere we can. The Plant is a tribute to him and everyone else who has been with us along the way.’
The Cooperative believe that five years on from Brexit the play will still appeal to a wide range of people, as the themes and issues the play explores are timeless – they have persisted throughout history, are still relevant today and will continue to be so into the future. Also, the writers have been careful to keep the play balanced. It is neither pro-leave or pro-remain.
‘In fact it’s not really about Brexit at all,’ Jeremy explains. ‘It’s about what that debate has done to us as a group of people and how we negotiate our way through it. It’s about questions of Englishness, belonging and identity and I think these will come to the fore more and more as we move forward.’
‘The play also looks at ideas of community,’ Greg adds. ‘The communities that I knew when I was growing up are not there as much and I think we need them back. They are there but we need to appreciate them, nurture them and be part of them to make them work, and the play explores that as well.’
There are three performances of The Plant at the end of October (dates below) and the Cooperative is applying for more funding to tour the production nationally in the future.
‘I was watching a documentary about Julie Walters talking about the early days of the Liverpool Everyman,’ Greg says. ‘She said they would rehearse a play, jump in the back of a van and turn up at a pub, jump out, put the play on, jump back in the van and go to the next venue. And that, for me, is what theatre is all about. That idea of theatre as education. Theatre that talks about politics, enlightens people and gets communities involved. And I think that’s what we should be doing with this play.’
The writers see The Plant as only the beginning of a journey.
‘What I want to do eventually is to take the idea of this play into other communities and leave them with it so that they can do their own version,’ Greg explains. To say right, here’s an idea – you’ve got a community, a set of characters, there’s a division, there’s an aspect of fragility and there are these themes – now you do what you want to do with it. It could be any issue – vaxxers and anti-vaxxers, anything. These are such divisive times. We’re living in a binary world at the moment. You’re either in or you’re out. Yes or no. There’s no grey.’
Becks Hill as Maddie
Harvey Almond as Niall
Paul Marlon as Gary
Denise Wilton as Jane
Jonathan Fitchett as Geoff
Lauren Mills as Gemma
LV21, Gravesend – 28th October 2021 – SOLD OUT (all ticket enquires to the Cooperative, please)
The Churchill Theatre, Bromley – 29th October 2021
The Aphra Theatre, University of Kent, Canterbury – 30th October 2021
The Plant Assembly Theatre Cooperative – https://www.plantassemblytheatre.com/