The village hall has been triple- booked, the organiser is desperate that the authorities don't find out and all these different groups must be kept apart. There are the Newbury bypass protesters, the Southern Fried Chickens - a five- piece country and western band, a group of nuns with a coffin (all named after charities because I was working in fundraising at the time) and the local cricket team. On top of that there are the solo characters whose dilemma drives the plot.
When I came to rewrite it, I had to decide exactly whose play it was. The second production by the National Youth Theatre had made it clear that the village doctor was the central character, so I amalgamated her and a sidekick and rebuilt the play around her, which strengthened it considerably. I then moved the action across the road to the village hall annexe, which meant that I could have a representative popping over rather than the whole group. That cut dozens of characters.
My major problem was that with so few actors, individual characters had to carry far more plot. Trying to thin it down drove me absolutely mental. With 46 people you can deliver 20 plot lines, no problem. With eight, it's a nightmare. If information is given to the wrong person, the whole thing collapses. Knocking characters out was very useful. 'Oh, it's you]' - hit 'em over the head and they forget everything.
It used to be a baton-type play, the story being constantly handed on. The essential thread is the same and they're still slamming doors, but it's now much more character-led.
The nuns couldn't be cut as I needed four of them to carry the coffin. Finding a way of getting the coffin off was horrendous, but I used that as the basis for the comedy doubling. One of the actors plays a nun and four other characters, all called Ball. Towards the end, he's playing the third member of the Ball family, there's a hiatus in the plot and he announces that his twin brother will sort it out. On the opening night, the audience groaned, then laughed, then applauded. That's what I love about farce. It's got nothing to do with boring TV naturalism. The audience knows they're watching acting but they believe in it at the same time. It's so proudly theatrical.
'Sticky Wickets' runs at the Watermill Theatre to 3 Sept (Booking: 0635 46044)
Interview by David Benedict
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