INTERVIEW / Double take: Playwright Jim Cartwright has finally made it to the West End. David Nathan met him

Divid Nathan
Monday 19 October 1992 00:02

AFTER an impressive selection of monosyllables - Road, Bed, Baths, June, Vroom - Jim Cartwright's The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, having crammed the Cottesloe since June, has now taken him for the first time out of the subsidised theatre and into the West End.

Cartwright wrote Little Voice - long titles, he finds, always get truncated - for Jane Horrocks, a skinny blonde actress who appeared in both the Royal Court and television productions of Road. He knew she was a mimic and so gave her a role in which she had to sing like Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Billy Holiday, Shirley Bassey and Edith Piaf, look 16 and act her socks off on the same stage as Alison Steadman. One leading critic had to be persuaded by colleagues to make a few inquiries before committing himself to the opinion that she was miming to records.

'She could mimic you after 20 minutes,' says Cartwright, who wrote the play without considering that, in the unlikely event of Jane Horrocks falling under a bus, the play would not have much of a future. 'She's unique,' he says, accepting that she cannot do it for ever but adding, 'You can't write and think about the financial future of the play. You just make a work of art and that's the way this one came out.'

Cartwright was born 34 years ago in Farnworth, on the outskirts of Bolton, Lancashire - a place, by his own admission, where art was pretty thin on the ground.

'Where does this thing come from,' he wonders, 'this feeling to do art or writing? My father worked in a factory all his life; my mother read a lot - about six thrillers a week. I went to a secondary modern, a low academic achievement school, a kind of direct conveyor belt to the factory or, for the girls, the mills. If you were lucky you got a trade, as an engineer or an electrician.

'But the mid-Seventies were a good time to be at school. There were a few teachers there who'd come from the Sixties and would encourage us, tell us we could do other things and there was the feeling, 'Yeah, I can go out there and change the world.' ' His formal education, though, stopped at 16 and his first job was stacking crates in a warehouse.

'What angered me a bit - and actually I'm still angry about it - is that I look at the writing I did at school and it's not all that different from what I do now. But they recognise it if you're good at sport, you're instantly spotted if you're good at science or maths and even acting is possible. But writing is the kind of thing only clever people do. You have to go to university and know how to spell.

'I used to write poems; writing was something that was always just floating there. But you find you're going against the stream: you have to have a lot of strength to push through.'

Cartwright's plays have a strong naturalistic base, but his characters are not all gritty, straight-talking folk. In Little Voice, the lusty, blowsy, drunken mother, excited that at last she has a telephone, cries: 'Oh this virgin blower and coil, this spanking plastic, this phone of mine . . .' Then sings: 'Oh give me a phone where the phonelohs phone.'

This ripeness of language at odds with the drabness of his characters' surroundings is something Cartwright claims not to have noticed before. Yet he displayed similar leanings in his writing for the slum dandy who guided the audience through Road.

'Yeah,' he says, 'it does seem to be like that when you point it out. It's not overheard speech; they're not based on particular people. I just make it up. I don't think about the process too much because I just like to let it happen. I'm not very well read, but in some ways it has been an advantage: I don't know about full stops properly, and I can't spell properly, and I don't know how something should be done. So I can just create fresh. It leaves me free and I like that.

'I'm not saying formal education is a bad thing,' he continues, 'I sometimes wish I could have done English at university. I'm just discovering writers, just started to read Dickens and he's brilliant. Where I come from you hear people say Shakespeare is boring and you think, how can you say that?'

While he remembers going to Bolton's Octagon Theatre only once as a youngster - to see a show about Bolton Wanderers - a good English teacher, who fancied himself as an actor, read Richard III to the class when Cartwright was about 14 and 'it blew me mind.'

Cartwright himself did not have to endure the all-too-common discouragement from families who fear that a child with talent might clever-dick himself out of their lives. 'When I was a kid, my dad used to say: 'Whatever you want, you can do it. I haven't got any money, but I'll help you anyway I can.' My mum felt the same, but she was a bit anxious when I talked about becoming a writer. She wanted me to get a trade. Without a trade you'd be a labourer all your life, nipping from warehouse to factory. They used to say, 'You'll end up on the buses.' Not any more. All those jobs are like gold now.'

Eventually he got out of the warehouse job and found work as an actor. He was in his late twenties and married, to a girl who worked in the Farnworth dole office, before he 'started to muck about with the writing' and sent some stuff, which turned out to be Road, to the Royal Court.

'It took them a while but eventually they did a reading and it went down really well. They were just bits of scenes. They commissioned me to do a play and it took me a while to get it together - not to write it but to get round to doing it. And then suddenly I was a writer, as if it was an accident. I'm just getting used to it now.'

Road brought in a few thousand pounds, but 'it was like winning the pools.' He and his wife bought a washing machine and a new television set, then a bigger, detached house in Westhoughton. Which, he is quick to point out, is not all that far from his home town: he feels that just living where he does helps youngsters to realise that you can live in a place like Farnworth and still be a writer.

He leads, he says, two lives, one in Lancashire, the other in London, a situation he decribes as enriching. Full houses at the National and the West End transfer of Little Voice have made him feel part of the London theatrical scene, but he hasn't exactly let success go to his head. 'It's kind of exciting,' he says. 'In a way.'

'Little Voice' is now at the Aldwych WC2 (071-836 6404)

(Photograph omitted)

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