Turning to the dark side

Published in The Stage, December ’11

Pantomimes are a staple of British life during the festive season – but alternative Christmas shows are becoming an increasingly popular option for those who want to break with tradition. Lalayn Baluch talks to Lucinda Coxon, the creative force behind one such offer, Herding Cats.

Each year as December approaches theatres start dusting off glass carriages for Cinderella, planting beanstalks for Jack and promoting the household name lined up to play Widow Twanky. The activities surrounding pantomimes are as much a festive ritual as putting up a Christmas tree or switching on fairy lights and are important not just because the shows are a British tradition, but because they are the most lucrative events that most venues will stage – a theatrical sure thing we can say.

However, for those without children, or just not that way inclined, alternative Christmas shows are becoming an increasingly popular option. Take dark comedy Herding Cats, which will receive its London premiere at the Hampstead Theatre, as an example. A three hander featuring a highly strung office worker, a telephone sex line operator and a caller with sadistic fantasies, it is certainly not for the whole family. Yet the show enjoyed a successful run at the Ustinov in Bath last Christmas and recently picked up a nomination in the Best New Play category at the 2011 Theatre Awards UK.

So what do we call this kind of show? “It’s a pantidote,” says playwright Lucinda Coxon, the creative force behind the play. “It is set in the run up to Christmas, and the aftermath, so it partly incorporates the high hopes and the deluded optimism of the season.

“At the centre is a character called Justine who is a young woman working hard in one of those jobs that people are dying to get hold of. But it’s not very satisfying with very long hours. When you haven’t got anyone to come home to what happens next?”

It’s a situation that many viewers will be able to connect with, as they perhaps will with the play’s other line of enquiry – the effects of developing technology on the way people interact with each other. This was not, however, a theme that Coxon specifically sought to look at. “I think I am rarely inspired by a subject. I mean that is what the play came to be about. Plays generally arrive through talking and it tends to be an organic process,” she explains.

This will most likely explain why the writer, who lives in north-west London with her 12-year-old daughter, prefers not to pen shows under commission and instead treads a trickier course by writing shows before pitching them to theatres.

“I feel as though it is a bit like having a baby and knowing that you will be giving it up for adoption,” says Coxon about writing under commission. “It puts you off. I find it a bit demotivating – I just need to have ownership.

“Writing for the National Theatre is slightly different. It is relatively pleasant experience because it binds you into a very big organisation and there are lots of different spaces there. There isn’t a sense that everything is predetermined. I think often now there is a lot of pressure on writers to take a commission and say what the play will be that they are going to deliver. I think it is disgraceful that one is asked that. You’d have to lie. I mean how do you know?

“There is such a tiny amount of money involved – theatre commissions are generally quite poorly paid – so the idea that you are required to do that is cheeky.”

With that said, Coxon does take into consideration the practicalities of staging a show during the writing process. Herding Cats was penned with the Ustinov in mind and created as a three-hander so that it would be easy to “whack on”. She chose Anthony Banks, who she had worked with at the NT, to direct the show and says it was “absolutely critical” to select her own director.

“You need to know that it is someone you are in tune with. I have been directed by people whose work I hadn’t seen before when I have worked abroad. The results are sometimes disastrous. The last director I worked with on stage with Thea Sharrock – I knew Thea’s work very well and was thrilled to be working with her. Generally it is crucial; you have to fall in love with your director,” she says.

As Coxon’s earlier comment on commissions indicates, she has a special relationship with the NT. The playwright believes a recent career break was when the London venue staged her show Happy Now? – it helped to mark her return to the UK after mainly working in the US for almost a decade. And it is a relationship that appears to be bearing fruit, as Coxon reveals that she has just submitted a play to the theatre about Vermeer forgerer Hans van Megreen. But we will have to watch this space for further details.

Coxon is also a successful screenwriter. Her film work includes The Heart of Me starring Helena Bonham Carter and The Danish Girl, which will be released next year starring Nicole Kidman and directed by Tomas Alfredson of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy fame. Her first television project – an adaptation of Michel Faber’s book The Crimson Petal and the White – aired in April and there are plans for her to join forces with the same BBC creative team next year.

When asked about subsidy cuts in the arts, she reveals that she experienced the effects of cuts more in film than theatre. However, she laments over the struggles of Derby Playhouse (it was the venue in her hometown that sparked her love of performing arts) and raises concerns about the impact of cuts in the regions. She says: “Now I am older I can travel around London and cherry pick things, but if you are 15 in Derby it [local venues] really matter. It would be the provinces I would be really worried about.”

Coxon began writing theatre in 1984 after reading English Literature at Oxford University. She moved to London to work on a show at the Finborough and then found herself doing “crazy London jobs” – working in a handbag shop and selling advertising – before establishing a relationship with the Bush Theatre. She describes the move to the capital as “thrilling”.

So why did she decide to work in California’s South Coast Rep Theatre for most of the nineties and noughties? A few years ago during a newspaper interview Coxon blamed London’s “blokey” theatre scene for offering limited opportunities to female playwrights. Now, while she concedes that this problem persists, her reasons are different.

“It is an amazing theatre where they commission a lot of work and where they commission the same writers over and over. It meant you can make a living in theatre,” she says. “There are very few places like that here [in London].”

Coxon’s optimism regarding female playwrights is also growing and after watching The Village Bike at the Royal Court she cites Penelope Skinner as writer to watch out for. “I was so incredibly excited by it that I wrote her a fan letter,” she reveals.

“The trouble is when one talks about the issue [of opportunities for women] one also has to bear in mind that male playwrights also fall out of fashion. Playwrights are at the mercy of fashion in a way that other writers aren’t. There is an obsession with developing new writers rather than growing mature writers. There is a fantastic generation of younger female playwrights, and they might have longer legs than the ones that went before.”

Herding Cats runs at Hampstead Theatre from December 6 – January 7