The Paintframe: National service

Four young playwrights are using a backstage space in Britain's best known theatre to present daring work to the public. By Alice Jones

Wednesday 03 August 2011 00:00

Backstage at the National Theatre, a coup is in progress. Four young playwrights have taken over a vast hangar, usually reserved for painting the sets used in the Olivier, Lyttelton and Cottesloe theatres, to stage their South Bank debuts. From this week until the end of the summer, the Paintframe – as the new space has been christened – will play host to four colourful new plays, including the monologue of a Sri Lankan female cricketer and a 21st-century urban family drama that is billed as "Rattigan on the estate".

"It's reminiscent of a New York warehouse – a massive workshop with paint splashed everywhere and big industrial doors", says DC Moore, one of the playwrights commissioned, alongside Sam Holcroft, Tom Basden and Prasanna Puwanarajah, for Double Feature. "The plan was originally to turn the Cottesloe into a warehouse space and then someone thought, 'Hang on, we've already got a warehouse.'"

"People have been trying to use it for years," adds Basden. "Apparently Katie Mitchell and Stephen Daldry have both petitioned to use it but it wasn't allowed. Until now."

In fact, it was the success of the excellent London Road that triggered the move, when it had its run in the Cottesloe extended by eight weeks. As it turns out, the Paintframe is the perfect home for the National's experiment. Audiences will sit on benches among the ladders, paint pots and ghosts of great productions past to watch two one-hour plays a night. In the interval, a live band, perched atop a hydraulic lift, will provide the soundtrack for the makeshift bar.

It is the South Bank's own mini-fringe, a rival to the other one that opens in Edinburgh on the same day, with a sprinkling of the new-writing magic of the Royal Court Upstairs, the event theatre of Shunt and a nod to the vogue for pop-ups. Come September, the set painters will move back in.

Before that, though, the versatile space will have been converted into a Lambeth pub, a practice cricket pitch, a surreal battleground and the smart kitchen of a pair of young professionals. The latter is the setting forHolcroft's play, Edgar & Annabel, a disorientating dystopian romp set in a crumbling police state, in which an ordinary married couple are under surveillance and all is not quite as it seems. The 28-year-old playwright specialises in unsettling scenarios: her 2008 debut, Cockroach, merged Grange Hill with Darwinism while last year's Traverse show, While You Lie, culminated in a caesarean at a suburban barbecue.

"I tend to open plays in a very normal recognisable place – a classroom, an office or a bedroom," she says. "The first scene is usually something you recognise and you feel like you know what you've bought your ticket for. And then the rug gets pulled away from you."

Holcroft's play is paired with The Swan, by Moore. Nominated for an Olivier and the Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright last year, Moore is perhaps the most experienced of the quartet. He won rave reviews for Alaska and The Empire at the Royal Court and last year took his searing monologue Honest on a tour of pubs in Northampton, Edinburgh and London. The Swan is a grimy pub and the setting for his drama about a father who doesn't go to his son's funeral. King Lear and the recent West End production of Flare Path were on Moore's mind when he was writing it.

"It's Rattigan on the estate," he says. "I'm trying to recreate the world outside the theatre on the stage. This is set in a pub in Lambeth, so not so far from the National. It's about lies and honesty within familial relationships and the bonds that non-traditional families make. Rattigan courses through British society on every level. At working-class level, it manifests itself in a different way but it's the same emotional evasiveness."

Aged between 28 and 31, the playwrights had to audition for the Paintframe slots, pitching their scripts Dragons Den-style. Once accepted, they were given an open brief to write an hour-long play. "We were told, 'Don't be held back by size of cast or scale. Just be held back by time,'"says Moore. Holcroft adds: "I was told to write a play that had energy and would resonate with my age group – and to make it rough and ready."

The National has done the rest, finding a space, two excellent directors – Polly Findlay and Lyndsey Turner – and a fluid company of 15 actors.

Basden, a regular on The Armstrong & Miller Show, will appear in Edgar & Annabel and his own play, There is a War, which is about a surreal and senseless conflict in a fantasy land.

"I wanted it to be in the spirit of Catch 22," says the 30-year-old, whose last play was Joseph K, a witty update of The Trial to 21 st-century London. "Yes, there's probably the odd echo of Kafka too. I learned a lot from writing that. There's something about his black humour that I've always enjoyed."

The final play is Nightwatchman, a monologue delivered by an English/ Sri Lankan Tamil woman on the eve of her debut match for England, at Lord's.

"At the start, she has a definite lid on a set of personal, political, familial and sporting concerns. The play just turns the heat up on that pot," says Puwanarajah, 30, who wrote his first play between rehearsals for Emperor and Galilean, in which he is currently appearing, upstairs atthe Olivier. "I wanted to write something that explored politics in Sri Lanka and second generation identity in the UK."

On paper at least, there is a "state of the nation" feel to the programme. Themes of multiculturalism, politics, power and war bubble under, though there is also a lightness of touch and, crucially, humour in the way they are raised.

"In a way, if the National Theatre asks you to write something, I think it's quite hard not to think about something that's 'state of the nation'," says Basden. "I certainly felt myself going more in that direction than I might have done otherwise."

Newly anointed as the ones to watch, none of the four playwrights arrived at the theatre by a conventional route. "Did anyone else get the sense that they were bringing a little bit of rough into the National?" asks Moore. "Or was that just me?" Having directed the first play by Lucy Prebble, the writer of Enron, while at Sheffield University with her, Moore was a civil servant for six years until his writing career took off, in 2009. "There came a tipping point when Town, The Empire and Honest were all on," he says. "And I thought, 'I don't have enough holiday for this.'"

Similarly, Holcroft was researching for a PhD in stem cell biology when Edinburgh University offered her a gap year. She made a couple of "terrible" television programmes about meerkats before winning a commission from the Traverse that became Cockroach.

Basden is typical of the group's multi-tasking style, refusing to confine himself to the "playwright" label. He came to prominence via comedy, winning the Best Newcomer Award at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2007 and going on to co-write and star in the BBC4 sketch show Cowards. Since then, he has made a Bafta-nominated short film with the comedian Tim Key and has written two series of Party for Radio 4, following successful theatrical runs in Edinburgh and London. "It's quite an inexact science, the way I see my career," he says. "I just tend to take the most exciting opportunity at the time."

Puwanarajah is the first-timer of the group, though an old-timer at the National, having appeared as Guildenstern in Hamlet and in London Assurance. Before that he acted in the RSC ensemble and before that he was working as an ENT doctor at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. At one point he was "pulling beads out of kids' noses" by day and appearing in Romeo and Juliet at Battersea Arts Centre by night. Recently, he wrote and directed a short film, The Half Light, starring David Haig and Harry Lloyd, but Double Feature is his first foray into playwriting.

"This play was brewing in my head and here was an opportunity to get it all out for 20 pages," he says, "in the knowledge that if the National were going to take it on, there would be a boldness of production approach that would back what I was trying to do. And also that there would be some of the most exciting minds in theatre sticking their head round the door and looking in. It's a terrifying place to do your first play but in many ways it's the least terrifying place."

Does it feel like a good time to be a young British playwright? "I certainly feel like British theatre is in a very strong place at the moment," says Basden. "It's almost a victim of its own success. If something's doing well, people just can't see it. It sells out in about a week. There's a glut of good stuff sometimes. But in terms of opportunities, it would be quite curmudgeonly to suggest that there aren't any. Four new plays by four writers who have never been here before, being performed in a bespoke space..."

"They've built us a theatre," says Moore. "You can't argue with that."

Indeed you can't. The future is painted bright.

'Double Feature', National Theatre, London SE1 (020 7452 3000; to 10 September

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