Rachel De-lahay interview: "People risk anything to get here"

Would-be migrants made her think about how much it means to live in Britain, and inspired her new play. Rachel De-lahay talks to Fiona Mountford about discrimination, jealousy, and making ends meet

It’s a delight to discover that playwright Rachel De-lahay speaks in the same sparky, urban-inflected way as her characters. “Amazing” is a word that recurs frequently in her conversation and she snaps her fingers to underscore her arguments. There’s a verve about her and no wonder: the 29-year-old is the playwright of the moment at the Royal Court, with two pieces opening there this month. It’s little surprise, then, that in a recent interview, the theatre’s artistic director, Vicky Featherstone, named De-lahay as one of the writers she was most excited about.

Peckham: The Soap Opera, on which De-lahay collaborated with Bola Agbaje, finished its run yesterday, so it is Routes, her second full-length piece, that I’ve come to talk about. It covers the same fruitful ground as her award-winning 2011 debut The Westbridge:the melting – and sometimes boiling-over – pot of modern multicultural London. This time, the slant is on immigration, leading to a tightly constructed six-hander that looks at who is and who isn’t allowed to come into and then stay in this country, and the extraordinary lengths to which some would-be immigrants will go.

I wonder if Birmingham-born De-lahay, whose father is from St Kitt’s and whose British-born mother grew up in Pakistan and was married again, to a Jamaican, wrote about the personal experiences of anyone she knew. “Me and my friend did a road trip to Paris – Never drive! It was an absolute rip-off! – and we did the ferry, and I just clocked the guys that hang where the lorries wait to go on. I thought people really will risk everything to get here. The flip-side of that is, if I wasn’t born here, would I do what they’re doing? Is it worth it?’

De-lahay doesn’t consider herself a political playwright (“that’s a really bad thing to say, isn’t it?”), but she is expansive on the Hydra-like topic of current immigration policy. Has she ever been made to feel less than British? “Me and my friends always talk about this. Every non-white person I know admits the world seems easier if you’re white, but no one would pick a different skin colour. Which is amazing…”.

Referring to recent, controversial spot checks by immigration officials, she warms to her theme. “How the hell are they stopping people at stations to say, ‘We think you don’t belong in this country’? I do think it’s a shame that [the immigration debate] is based purely on looks. If officials are hanging outside Stratford station, Anka’s children [Anka is a naturalised British Polish immigrant in Routes] aren’t going to get stopped over mine. They will be white with a British accent, whereas my children will be brown with a British accent. Straightaway you can get, ‘You’re meant to be here, and you’re not.’”

The race debate can come in many forms. I mention a recent storm in a Twitter teacup during which a black playwright accused De-lahay of revisiting “overdone” themes in black playwriting, whatever that might be. She sighs. “I think there’s a fear, which possibly comes from a real place, that’s there’s only room for one [non-white playwright], and if Rachel De-lahay has taken that spot, then that spot’s taken. Laura Wade isn’t going to be kicking off about me having a play on at the Royal Court, Polly Stenham isn’t, because they know there’s room for them.”

Her long route to Routes is as engaging as any of her anecdotes and, winningly, hinges upon her mother, a nurse, going early to bed at “stupid o’clock”. De-lahay trained as an actress, and while doing a play at Coventry and staying at home she found herself bored one evening. “I had a look on the Royal Court website and they had an invitation for Unheard Voices writing groups.” She applied, was accepted into the group for young Muslim writers and the rest is history – plus many drafts of The Westbridge.

She has recently been named a Screen International Star of Tomorrow for her debut film script, currently in development with Film4, about the gripping-sounding true story of a “passion crime” committed by a girl with whom she went to school. Television, however, excites her more than film, and she has a comedy-drama television project in the pipeline. “I want as many people to hear the stories as possible. I haven’t been to the cinema in ages, and I feel like I’m probably not alone in that. I don’t know who you’re telling those stories to if it’s in a cinema. Who are the people that are still going?”

It’s all very well being one of the most buzzed-about young playwrights, but does that translate into being able to pay her bills? “Just about,” she says wryly, adding that she worked full-time as a supervisor in a clothes shop until last year. “My flatmate’s a stand-up comedian, and month by month the joke is we don’t have a standing order for any of our bills. It can’t just come out, because what if it’s not there? That’s the luxury: if you can pay your bills with a standing order, you’re living the dream! That’s amazing!” I confidently predict that De-lahay will be able to set up those standing orders before the year is out.

Routes, the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, London SW1, 20 Sept to 12 Oct ( royalcourttheatre.com)

Arts and Entertainment
The crowd enjoy Latitude Festival 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
'I do think a woman's place is eventually in the home, but I see no harm in her having some fun before she gets there.'

Is this the end of the Dowager Countess?tv
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Martin of Coldplay performs live for fans at Enmore Theatre on June 19, 2014 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

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.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn