When Carl Miller from Unicorn approached me to be their Class Acts playwright for 2011, he told me that it was a commission for a world premier, bespoke for the year six class room that I would be paired with and a strict half an hour length. I was nervous that I didn’t have any idea what to write about as I was given carte blanche to write about anything, as long as I followed these rules and made sure that all thirty kids in the class could participate in an uplifting ‘rite of passage’ experience of performing the play on the main stage at the Unicorn, giving them a unique way of saying Goodbye to Primary school. So no tragedies clearly? He did warn me that it was a ‘tough ask’. I also had five plays to read from my predecessors; eminent playwrights like my mentors Lin Coghlan and Philip Osment who had risen to the challenge in previous years. Luckily I have an eleven year old son (then ten) and a fourteen year old son whose throwaway comments have often become gold dust for a magpie playwright like me. In fact in school they now have a term in English called ‘magpie..ing’ where kids are encouraged to ‘steal’ great images and phrases from books and writers they admire and ‘make them their own’ in their new works of literature. Not that I would encourage plagiarism but as long as it’s ‘out of the mouths of your own babes’, surely that’s allowed?
One of my sons expressed a concern going round school like a Chinese whisper. ‘The world’s going to end in 2012 and I’ll have spent all my life at school’. This was the seed of my exploration about the fears and dreams of the young in an increasingly turbulent world. When I met the talented and vibrant Year six class from Shapla Primary, I wanted to offer them a piece that reflected their unique cultural context as British Bengalis. Through the wonderful facilitation by Sharon Aviva-Jones and Jenny Maddox we had a fruitful three sessions with the Shapla Year six kids, as they opened up a window into their lives and how they saw their place in the world. I was struck also by the role that religion placed in shaping their lives and providing a moral compass. For them ‘the end of the World’ is a certainty that they take for granted; the only unknown being when this might be. As one of them said (which is a line in the play) ‘it will be on a Friday, but parents never said when’. To be in a classroom where a teacher expressing a Darwinian view is in the minority, was fascinating and I wanted to give centre stage to the children’s world view where they fully expect to be held accountable for their actions in this life and as one parent expressed ‘every day do something to prepare for the hereafter’. From this emerged the characters of the Angel Assistants who are there on every one’s left and right shoulders making an account of all the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ deeds in everyone’s unique balance sheet that will decide their ultimate fate.
2011 was also the year that Bangladesh as a country turned 40 and every child in the class expressed their views of their identity and their parents’ connection to their ‘homeland’. Their fantastical imaginations helped shape for me the last scene in the play where the parents try to mark the occasion and the children take over.
So armed with this research and the daily nuggets I overheard at home ‘small fish, big cheese’ began to emerge and an unconscious spirit held my hand throughout as I wove in the various strands of over heard gold dust, breaking news about Earthquakes and the Arab Spring, theories about the end of the World, the lost and jilted generations, read Oscar Wilde and Skellig, and reluctantly prepared my younger son for his eleven plus exams. As one of the mums in the play says ‘What is a future with B’s?’ to which the daughter replies ‘everyone who gets A’s is from the same gene pool’; expressing yet another modern concern of parents and kids. This fear of the future takes different forms and hangs in the air throughout the play and is especially charged as the kids see a finite ending to their young lives and express deep and profound feelings with great wit and humour.
‘There was nothing on that Super Muslim Channel and they should know’
‘There’s gonna be a World War three alright. I’ll punch you in the face. That’s World War three’
As the children take matters into their own hands their parents emerge as fragile and fallible reflecting the reality I was experiencing and seeing around me; adults coping with huge life changes, life threatening illness and major bereavement; the older you get the braver you have to be, yet the more you end up leaning on your children.
The World Premier of Small fish, Big Cheese was in July 2011 with the entire Year 6 class of Shapla primary taking centre stage. I am delighted that Bryan Savery and Jim Johnson from Peshkar responded so passionately to my play and am looking forward to its future journey. See Jim’s blog for his take on the project and I must say I am fascinated that for him the thing that stood out first was what he calls ‘the Big Idea’ as I always start with the ‘small story’
On the first day of rehearsals we had huge storms in London and Wimbledon, where I live, was plunged in darkness for several hours. Is it a sign or just one of those things that always happen where life imitates art and I always find that themes from plays I am writing start to seep into the ‘real’ world!
Writer – Small Fish, Big Cheese
Small Fish, Big Cheese is playing at the Unicorn Theatre 10 – 14 January 2012. More info and Tickets