The theatre where it’s never too late to get in on the act

The Royal Court has turned out a raft of bright young writers – now it’s launching a workshop for eightysomethings. Alice Jones sits in

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

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?