Lucy Kirkwood: Britain's brightest young stage writer

Her explicit play about sex trafficking has stunned the critics, but Lucy Kirkwood is more worried about what her parents will think. She talks to Alice Jones

Tuesday 27 October 2009 01:00

Lucy Kirkwood looks sweet enough. Today, the 25-year-old playwright, dressed in a prim peach blouse, ankle-grazing skirt and brown brogues with her hair piled up in a hasty bun on top of her head, looks like a mildly scatty Victorian governess. But don't be deceived: dark things lurk beneath the bun. Her latest play, at London's Arcola Theatre, with the breathless title, it felt empty when the heart went at first but it is alright now, is currently wowing the critics with its unflinching look at the bruising life of a street-trafficked girl, leading (sell-out) audiences on a grim fairy-tale journey from her condom-strewn working bedroom to her prison cell. "Wonderful," said The Independent's Paul Taylor and others concurred, declaring it "theatre that provokes in the best way" (The Times) and a "great triumph" (Evening Standard). Still, Kirkwood's parents, both retired, haven't seen it yet – and she's worried. "I'm hugely uncomfortable about it," she squirms. "There are certain things you don't really want your parents to know came from your head."

They're probably used to it by now. Across town at the Southwark Playhouse, her black comedy Psychogeography – about a young couple, Maxine and Ian, attempting to get on the first rung of the property ladder by buying a house that last belonged to a serial killer – has been scaring audiences out of their skins as part of the Terror 2009 season alongside such eminent masters of the macabre as Neil LaBute, Mark Ravenhill and Anthony Neilson. Before that, there was Tinderbox, at the Bush, a revenge comedy with the grisly subtitle "Love among the liver" and set in a butcher's shop that made Mrs Lovett's pie shop look like Waitrose. Oh, and she wrote that episode of Skins where little Effy was forced into overdosing on drugs and almost into having sex with her brother, Tony.

"I generally think of myself as a smiley, chuckly person," she giggles. "But I guess I've got quite a dark sense of humour." You can say that again. Black comedy is Kirkwood's default setting, one which allows her to tackle cannibalism, rape, murder and teeth-shattering violence and somehow remain quirkily entertaining. In Tinderbox the first clue that Saul's butchery business is not quite kosher comes when his wife Vanessa fishes a pair of spectacles out of the stew. In Psychogeography, the gory details about the house's previous owner are drip fed into the narrative at the same rate as its period features. "Twenty seven women were raped, tortured, skinned and killed in this house."/"Original fireplaces, though".

Ask Kirkwood for her influences and she rattles off a noirish list: Caryl Churchill, The League of Gentlemen, Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected, American writer Phyllis Nagy and playwright Dennis Kelly. You can spot dismembered parts of all of them in her writing – dense passages of finely wrought dystopian imagery, snappy wordplay and a fine ear for dialogue all woven together with febrile flights of fancy. Harold Pinter she ain't. "My problem is always I've got so much to say," she admits. "Writing is like a dog I'm trying to wash in a bath. You let it go for a bit then you need to rein it back in."

it felt empty... is her most tightly tuned work so far. It introduces an extraordinarily compelling character in Dijana, a beautiful, and very funny young Croatian woman who comes to London in search of a better life and is promptly sold by her cousin to the shady Babac, who becomes first her lover and later her pimp. "I know exactly how much I am worth," Dijana tells us, brandishing a bottle of L'Oreal "Because I'm worth it" shampoo. "I am worth one thousand euros because that is how much Babac pay for me. To put this in easy language, that is like two-and-a-half iPhones." The play is produced by Clean Break, the remarkable women's theatre company set up 30 years ago by two prisoners. Kirkwood has just completed a two-year stint as writer-in-residence, running writing classes for ex-offenders and taking workshops into prisons. "There's this language people use when talking about trafficking. It involves putting a woman on stage in her underwear, covering her with track marks and being quite voyeuristic. It's a form of grim tourism. I was more interested in how Dijana was like me, than not like me," she says. "A lot of the time sex trafficking will get put on stage as if it happens in an alternate universe. It doesn't: it happens next door to you or above a fried chicken shop. I felt an acute responsibility to represent a woman rather than a statistic."

Women loom large in Kirkwood's work. This is, after all, the girl who, aged 16, penned a feminist skit for her school panto called Sleeping Booty: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love my Sewing Machine. "I think the Kubrick reference went over everyone's head a bit ... " Last year came her witty take on Hedda Gabler at the Gate Theatre which transposed Ibsen's original to a coterie of squabbling boho academics in 21st-century Notting Hill and memorably climaxed with Hedda swallowing the memory stick holding Lovborg's precious manuscript. And in Tinderbox, Vanessa eventually responds to a lifetime of abuse from her husband by burning his shop down. "I'd rather be a playwright than a woman playwright," says Kirkwood. "But I'm interested in how you fight from a position of implicit inferiority. Women have always been allowed to write but apart from Caryl Churchill you're allowed to write as long as you're writing about being a young woman. That's changing now. Lucy Prebble's Enron is extraordinary. I went to see Sam Holcroft's Vanya at the Gate. It was just brilliant and I thought, 'If this had Tom Stoppard's name on it, you'd all be lapping it up.'" Ah, the critics. Tinderbox, it has to be said, received mixed notices. "I didn't want to have a first play – you know, living room, domestic situation, problem... Loads of people have done that. I was excited by the fact that it was weird and metaphorical," says Kirkwood. "Then someone used the word 'dire' and that's upsetting."

Still, the odd bad review is perhaps par for the course for a playwright who, only three years ago, was still a student. In the throes of finals revision one morning, she took a call from Caryl Churchill's agent, Mel Kenyon. Kenyon had spotted her first play, Grady Hot Potato while judging the PMA award. It went on to win and and by the time she graduated, Kirkwood had two professional commissions under her belt – for the Bush and for the National Theatre Studio, a work in progress which is set to be produced by the excellent Headlong. Around the same time, the producers of Skins asked her to join their team. Not owning a television she'd never heard of the teen soap and had to ask her "trendier" younger sister to fill her in.

Television pays the bills, she says, with a near-imperceptible wrinkle of her nose, but it's theatre which gets her "hair standing on end". Born in Leytonstone to a City worker father and school sign-language communicator mother, there were early signs of her fertile imagination. When I ask if she ever considered an alternative career she embarks on a lyrical spiel. "I'd like to have been a gardener. I wanted to be a librarian when I was a kid. I found these lists of imaginary members I'd fined for returning books late. Then I wanted to be an astronomer. I had a telescope..."

Her parents fuelled this creativity with regular theatre trips. Stephen Daldry's original An Inspector Calls stood out. "I like proper theatre," she beams. "With all the bells and whistles." At her all-girls grammar school in Woodford, Essex, she played Bugsy Malone and dreamed of becoming an actress. After studying English Literature at Edinburgh, she applied to drama school and was through to the last round at Rada when Kenyon called.

She's been writing ever since. Her prolific output is the result of a ferocious work ethic which sees her write from 10am to 2am, at her kitchen table in her Brick Lane flat. Last week, she took her first holiday – a few days in France – since graduating. Refreshed, she's now started her second screenplay for television company Kudos and another for Film4, based on the anonymous novel Sabine, a Gothic tale set in a French boarding school and published in 2000. ("I feel it might be something that Sarah Waters knocked off in a weekend and was too ashamed to put her name to. But it's a great book.") Then there's the new play with Headlong – about Chinese-American relations since 1989 – and another, about the Large Hadron Collider for the Manhattan Theatre Club. There are whispers, too, of a West End project.

Not bad for a first quarter century. "I love the feeling of learning – I can feel these muscles getting stronger and stronger," she says. "The idea there might not be a space for your play one day is quite frightening. You just always want there to be someone to go and play with."

'it felt empty...', Arcola Theatre, London E8 (020-7503 1646; to 31 October

Polly Stenham

The original queen bee of the young female playwrights, Stenham was only 19 years old when 'That Face', charting the breakdown of a breathtakingly dysfunctional family, was hailed by critics as the kind of dazzling debut that only comes along once in a generation. It transferred to the West End. Her second, 'Tusk Tusk', sold out the Royal Court before it opened. The 22-year-old is now working on screenplays for both.

Lucy Prebble

The 28-year-old playwright is widely considered to have blown the rather more established David Hare and his take on the financial crisis, 'The Power of Yes', out of the water with her thrilling drama 'Enron'. A West End transfer is scheduled for the new year. The former secretary at the National Theatre first came to prominence as the writer of the screenplay for ITV2's Billie Piper vehicle, 'Secret Diary of a Call Girl'.

Bola Agbaje

Bola Agbaje, 28, won an Olivier for 'Gone Too Far!', a bold, astute and very funny look at multicultural teenage Britain, which premiered at the Royal Court in 2007 and marked her out as an exciting theatrical voice. Her new play, 'Detaining Justice', opens at the Tricycle next month as part of the Not Black and White season, while 'Off the Endz', her long-awaited second play for the Royal Court, about the aspirations of twentysomethings on a London estate, arrives in February.

Ella Hickson

Officially one to watch, as the youngest writer to be taken on by drama publishers Nick Hern. Her debut, 'Eight', a series of state-of-the-nation monologues, won a Fringe First award at Edinburgh last year. Her second, 'Precious Little Talent', about graduating in a recession, sold out at this year's Fringe and the 24-year-old is now developing work with the Traverse and BBC Comedy Scotland. Alice Jones

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