Polly Stenham was 19 when she had her first play put on there, Anya Reiss was just 17 – but Dick Langton is bucking the youthful trend. When he makes his Royal Court debut next week, he will be 92 years old. A retired caterer who served with the RAF during the Second World War, he is currently the oldest member of the theatre’s newest programme, for playwrights aged 80 and over.
Over the last decade under Dominic Cooke, Sloane Square has been a hotbed for bright young writing things. Stenham, with three sell-out plays at the theatre by the time she turned 26, is the figurehead of a generation that includes Nick Payne, Laura Wade and Mike Bartlett and their hit plays Constellations, Posh and Cock. All are graduates of the Royal Court’s Young Writers’ Programme, a 12-week course for 18- to 25-year-olds, for which applicants now outnumber places by six to one.
“Especially at the Court there’s been a perception that youth is where it’s at,” says playwright Penelope Skinner, 35. “Even when I was in my late 20s, I felt that I’d left it too late. When I first wrote a play I didn’t even bother to send it in.” In the event, her first play, Fucked, staged at the Old Red Lion Theatre in Islington when she was 30, led to an invitation to join the Royal Court’s group for not-so-young writers. The Village Bike followed in 2011.
Now, Skinner has set up an Old Writers’ programme, “to combat the perception that there is any such thing as being too old.” It is part of Open Court, six weeks of experiments marking the handover of power from Cooke to the new artistic director Vicky Featherstone. As well as a weekly rep, playwright readings and open mic nights, there will be three “Big Idea” evenings, themed around Sex, Death and Age. The centrepiece of the latter will be 12 five-minute plays by the group, directed by Featherstone.
“Vicky hopes that this is the beginning of opening up the writers’ programme to be a new, slightly different thing,” says Skinner. “Even though all the playwrights at the theatre aren’t young, that’s the vibe. And I don’t agree with it. If you haven’t thought to write a play until you’re 80, you should still be able to.”
Sondheim and Wesker are still going strong in their 80s, after all. Bennett and Bond are in their late 70s and Stoppard, Churchill and Ayckbourn not far behind. The silver pound is healthy, too. A report from December 2012 by the Intergenerational Foundation found that people aged 50-74 spend twice as much per year as the under-30s on theatre and cinema tickets and that spending on the same by the over-75s more than doubled between 2000 and 2010.
When the Royal Court put out the call for older writers, they were overwhelmed. “We had to reject quite a few seventy-somethings on the basis of being too young,” says Skinner. The final 12 come from all over – Dublin, Manchester, London. Several are retired theatre professionals. Irene Ison, 83 and a card-holding Equity member, does not have a computer, but her daughter applied for her. “When you get to 60, you turn into an ‘old person’, no matter if you’re a man or a woman,” she says. “If you go to a creative-writing group, it’s mainly women. If it’s playwriting, it’s mainly men. Here they have six men and six women. So it’s not all plays about beer and rugby.”
The course consists of four two-hour workshops, led by Skinner and DC Moore, another star alumnus of the Young Writers’ Programme. Michael Frayn, at 79 a spring chicken in the room, has dropped in to teach, too. At the third session, on structure, Skinner and Moore take the group through some basic rules. “I’m writing a three-act play and I was worried I was being very old-fashioned,” says one writer. “No. It’s a classic for a reason,” says Moore. “I was told to write a historical play about someone like Joan of Arc, because you get more publicity. Is that right?” asks another. “We want you to write about yourselves,” says Skinner. Concerns allayed, they share their homework.
Langton’s is the most dramatic offering – a gunfire-powered romp set in an unnamed South American dictatorship. Patrick Adams, 84, offers up a mysterious, Pinteresque piece about a grieving husband meeting his late wife’s female lover. Elsewhere there are scenes about broken bones, retirement and a slimy encounter on the casting couch.
Harold Smith, 84, a former builders’ merchant and keen am-drammer, reads out his first ever scene. “I did my final play three weeks ago – Justice Shallow in The Merry Wives of Windsor. It’s only a small part, but I was finding the lines so hard to learn. So I thought I’d give writing a go instead.” His comic dialogue contrasts past and present as a couple prepare for a holiday; where once their suitcase was full of Durex, now it’s packed with Horlicks.
“The idea is not for them to write about old age, necessarily, but to write from their experience,” says Skinner. An early exercise saw them compiling lists of their preoccupations now and at 21. “They weren’t that different. They’re not worried about being shot down in the RAF anymore, but the big themes – money, democracy, family – stay the same,” says Skinner.
The plays will be performed on Friday, with a piece by Skinner and Moore, Do You Feel Too Old?, inspired by the responses to a classified ad asking the question in the Evening Standard. “The first response we got was from a 22-year old,” says Skinner. “Someone else just said, ‘I’m fatter and balder than I thought I’d be’.” The evening will end with a singalong in the bar, led by the stalwart pianist from the nearby Duke of Kendal pub, June Turvey, aged 87.
‘The Big Idea: Age’, Royal Court Theatre, London SW1 (020 7565 5000; royalcourttheatre.com) 21 June 7pm