Talking about her generation: Laura Poliakoff's debut play shows she has a voice all of her own
The writer is the daughter of one of Britain's most famous dramatists, Stephen Poliakoff.
Let's start with the similarities. They share the same surname, obviously. And quite a lot of genetic material. And they're both writers. Apart from that, Stephen Poliakoff and Laura Poliakoff don't appear to have an awful lot in common. As Stephen, 59, puts the finishing touches to his first BBC television series, Dancing on the Edge, a typically sumptuous, polished period affair following the fortunes of a black jazz band in 1930s London, his daughter, Laura, 27, is preparing to bring her first play – a sweary, dystopian black comedy set in a grimy old people's home in 2065 – to the stage.
Poliakoff Jr, a history graduate, started out as a researcher on her father's period dramas. "I just trawled through loads of history books and biographies of people who were around at the time. I know what my Dad's looking for – the juicy, real-life stories that he can incorporate into his script, which aren't just facts," she says. Most recently, she worked on Dancing on the Edge, spending several days on set. "I love the period and the music. It's set in 1933 or 1937. Probably 1933. Oh God, this is embarrassing... It's set in the 1930s."
It's all in the past now anyway, as Poliakoff launches a career in her own right. Having left the National Film and Theatre School (NFTS) just over a year ago, tomorrow she will premiere her first play, Clockwork, at HighTide, the Suffolk theatre festival for new writing, whose patrons include David Hare.
The play is set some 50 years in the future in a care home staffed by hoodlum teenagers and clock-watching nurses called Troll Face. Its antiheroes are Carl and Mikey, best friends since childhood, now in their seventies and still wearing Adidas shell-toes and listening to grime. Grumpy, filthy and foul-mouthed, these days their only kicks come from popping pills to the Archers theme tune and hiding porn and cigarettes under their wheelchairs.
"I just liked the idea of imagining my generation as older people. It's quite hard when you talk to your grandparents or go to visit a care home to imagine that everyone in there was a teenager once and that they could have led the most exciting or debauched lives," says Poliakoff, stabbing at the foam on her cappuccino. "I thought it would be an interesting way of looking at old age."
The play also makes a serious point about ageing populations and how society cares for its elderly. Poliakoff's dark vision of the future includes 500,000 centenarians on the loose, a crime wave caused by poverty-stricken pensioners and people with Alzheimer's being implanted with memory chips.
Putting the concerns and vernacular of her peers into the mouths of ageing actors is the kind of witty, eye-catching trick that is bound to see Poliakoff hailed as the next big Young Female Playwright. Reminiscent of an early-era Amy Winehouse in her gold hoop earrings with lashings of eyeliner and dyed hair, she certainly looks the part. Laconic and witty, with a feisty way with words, she sounds it too. At HighTide, Clockwork will run in rep with new plays by similar hot properties Ella Hickson, Vicky Donoghue and Stephanie Street and she is currently enrolled on the Royal Court's starmaking Young Writers' Programme whose alumni include Polly Stenham and Lucy Prebble.
"I am definitely writing for my generation," she says. Is there also an element of rebelling against the emotionally restrained, elegant period dramas that made her parents' names? "I've never consciously thought that I want to be completely different from my parents but I do naturally have a very different style and interests. Obviously – it's a different generation."
Writing is in Poliakoff's blood. Her father, Stephen is a prolific purveyor of countless plays and classy television dramas such as Shooting the Past and Friends and Crocodiles. Her mother, Sandy Welch, is a scriptwriter whose adaptations for the BBC include a Bafta-winning Our Mutual Friend (1999) and an Emmy-nominated Jane Eyre (2007). She grew up in Angel, north London with her younger brother, Alex, and attended the all-girls Francis Holland School. Occasional set visits aside, her childhood wasn't the whirl of beautiful people and glamorous parties seen in her father's dramas. "Our house wasn't like that at all. My parents are quite private people. There weren't actors, directors and other arty people coming through the door every five minutes," she says. "They'd both go off into separate rooms and work for hours. My Dad's room was always covered in scripts because he wrote everything by hand. Still does. He thinks that it forces you to think more about exactly the sentence you are writing if you can't just, you know, write a load of old shit, delete it and edit it. And he's right".
She began writing, inevitably, as a child. "Terrible, terrible things. My Dad would be working towards an important deadline and I'd shove my awful pages in front of his face and he'd say things like, 'Hmm maybe if you reach the end, we'll have a clearer idea of where that was going.' But he was always encouraging." Her departure for university in Bristol inspired its own television drama, Gideon's Daughter, about a widowed father (played by Bill Nighy) coming to terms with his distant daughter (Emily Blunt) flying the nest.
After graduating, she moved back into her childhood home – where she now lives with friends while her parents (now in Hammersmith) try to sell it – and enrolled at film school. There she started writing in earnest and discovered a talent for witty, twisted tales. Bertie Crisp, a short animation about a put-upon bear and his psychopathic rabbit wife, voiced by Tamsin Greig and Kathy Burke, recently won a British Animation Award. Other coursework included Prude, a short film about sexual awakening set in Loch Ness, and a play in which a couple bicker about chlamydia. "I never wrote about female sexuality in order to make a political statement but people have been strangely surprised. 'Oh, you're a woman and you're writing about the fact that women want to have sex'. It shouldn't be a weird thing, but it is."
She's now writing an episode of Doctors – "first proper credit for the Beeb" and has been commissioned to adapt Elizabeth Ridley's novel The Remarkable Journey of Miss Tranby Quirke, about a lesbian affair between a repressed teacher and her student.
Growing up in a writers' household, she says, has taught her the importance of originality and being prepared for criticism. So does she think her surname will be a curse or blessing in future? "Good question," she says. "If people don't think I'm a good writer, it won't help me. I don't think it's going to be a curse but I guess people will be intrigued to see whether I'm terrible or not."
'Clockwork', High Tide Festival, Halesworth, Suffolk (hightide.org.uk) 4 to 13 May
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