I don’t reckon no one’s gonna see me.
Cos no one looks up really.
Miss Gregory, who takes us for art, she reckons that in cities, yeah, people walk around looking at the pavement.
And she reckons if they look up they’d see like a totally different city.
More beautiful or whatever.
One morning, ten-year-old Emily Connor wakes to discover that her feet don’t touch the ground. Her mum takes her to the doctor but he can do nothing and she’s still rising. They make a bed on her ceiling, then they tether her to a rope in the garden. But despite the Coastguard, the neighbours, social services, and all the best wishes in the world, Emily is still rising.
Emily Rising started life as a radio play, directed by Polly Thomas and starred a young Louisa Lytton (Eastenders, Dancing on Ice, The Bill) as Emily. Ross Cook played her brother Robbie; Zoe Henry was her mother Sarah. Graeme Hawley was Greg and Mr Marlow while Jean Allen and Mrs Foster were played by Martine Brown. It was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 24 August 2001. The play repeated on Radio 4 on 6 May 2003.
I think of this play as the moment where I started writing in my own style. What some people call ‘finding your voice’. It is the first play I’d written set in the present and it doesn’t owe anything obvious to other writers I admire. The play came to me in a rush. I was listening to The Pogues‘ first album and the first song on there, ‘Transmetropolitan’, describes a long drunken rampage through London but includes the lovely line ‘From Pentonville Road on a sunset eve / To the beauty that’s Mill Lane’. It got me thinking about having that aerial perspective which set me thinking about someone flying across London. Which got me thinking about how someone would get up there. The story, the tone, the location, the characters, the scenes, even the title came to me in the next twenty minutes. I’ve never had a play come to be so suddenly and completely. I emailed Polly immediately with a short paragraph outline of the story and the next day got a voicemail from her to say it had been commissioned. I thought: from now it, it will always be that easy. It wasn’t.
It then became a stage puppet play for children in 2016. Oliver Hymans is directing, and the rest of the creative team is Alison Alexander (Puppets), Jimmy Grimes (Puppet Mechanics), Rachael Champion (Set), and Patrick Furness (Sound). The cast of puppeteer-performers is Peyvand Sadeghian (Emily, Jean), Yana Penrose (Sarah, Mrs Foster) and David Emmings (Greg, Robbie, Dr, Jacky). It's for Goblin Theatre, artistic director, Matt Bugatti, and co-produced by Britain's premier puppet theatre Little Angel Theatre, Islington. It opens 10 September and runs until 20 November. Production supported by the Arts Council.
It's a curious thing taking a radio play and making it a stage play for puppets. You might think they are the opposite, one being entirely non-visual and very dialogue-heavy, the other very visual and very dialogue-light. But in fact, they have much in common, first they love story; story is how you get people in and hook them and keep them. But also, and this is more key to the comparison, they neither offer literal visual representations of the action; all you're doing is offering an audience prompts for their imagination. If you do that right, the audience do the rest of the work.
Another principle is that writing for puppets needs to externalise as much as possible (Hamlet-type introspection is less effective than something physicalised and made visual. This doesn't mean you can't be psychological, but you need to throw shapes and strike attitudes. In some ways, each scene needs to have a tableau level at which is can be understood - two people fighting, or kissing, or one person walking out on another, these things work very well and the dialogue just sits on top of that, refining, making more precise.
The original script for Emily Rising had a few bits where clearly I was enjoying writing contemporary dialogue and there are some self-conscious moments. I've tried to eliminate those in favour of clarity and vividness. The social worker, for example, now has, basically, a sort of catch phrase; the helicopter pilot is more of a comic figure and so on.
Here are some reviews of the stage production:
- Miriam Gillinson in The Guardian
- Flossie Waite in Children's Theatre Review
- Anna Bosworth on Curious Mum
- Howard Loxton in British Theatre Guide
- Julia Rank in The Stage
- Emma Gibbons in CultureWhisper
You can listen to the original Emily Rising below.