I saw Katie McCullough’s new play last week and chaired a post-show discussion about it.
Katie’s play is a series of seven
monologues by people who work for a office supplies retailer. Claire,
the manager, is looking to adopt a child but is very picky. George,
deputy manager, is having an affair with coworker Judith. Will,
supervisor, is gay and toying with buying a ring. Stuart’s a sales
assistant and his induction tour mainly consists of his reflections on a
life as a West Ham fan. His fellow sales assistant, Chloe, has been
receiving unwanted attention from an unknown stalker, which seem to both
horrify and excite her. Judith is working as a sales assistant to help
fund her studies as a forensic scientist and she tells us of her
tendency to date older married men. Alex only works weekends and seems
fascinated by everything around him, so much so that he fails to call an
ambulance for a sick man on the shop floor.
It’s a really accomplished bit of
writing. The individual characters are beautifully rendered and the
workplace is sufficient to contain the variety and give it shape and
purpose. I admired her ability to work with the very delicate and the
very extreme ends of emotion and experience, from Will’s guilty joy to
Chloe’s pornographic imagination. She handles research very well:
Stuart’s life among the Irons was apparently entirely drawn from
research, but felt not only authentic but was well balanced between
detail and feeling.
What’s formally unusual about the play
is the opening stage direction: ‘The order [in] which the monologues are
to be performed and/or split up is to be decided by the company and the
director’. So Melissa Dunne - who was involved in the development of
the play - produced her own assemblage of the play (which was then
further worked on in rehearsal). This was, I would say, effective; the
monologues in the original are all between four and six pages so if
played in sequence would probably create a slightly monotonous rhythm
which would have worked against the originality and interest of the
It did make me want to wonder about the
significance of this as a working method. It is to abdicate one of the
things that playwrights conventionally are responsible for, the dramatic
shape of the evening. While the cut still maintained some of the
narrative arcs within the monologues - albeit spread out through the
evening - different cuts might produce very different juxtapositions,
meanings and moods. I think it’s an interesting and - see below - not
unprecedented move, but I still wonder what the fun is for the
playwright. I can see that it creates more of a bond by opening up to
the director; I can see that it makes apparent the malleability of all
plays (I’ve sometimes said that Attempts on Her Life
is in a way the most unusual and most typical play in the world); and
it can be a relief not to be solely responsible for every dramaturgical
But I can also see that it could be
abused in situations where there’s a less intuitive and mutually
respectful working environment than there is between Katie and Melissa.
It would be very easy to produce a ridiculous or nonsensical and flatly
insensitive cut of Ladybird. But having
given up rights over the ordering of the material, how can the
playwright assert the hidden landscape of the play and insist on its
integrity. It’s as important to insist on what must be kept as what can
be changed (Crimp insists that the first scene of Attempts can be omitted, the exception proving the rule that all other scenes must be
played). It strikes me, looking both at the unedited and edited
scripts, that McCullough’s monologues each have delicate structures that
would be ruined if broken in the wrong place; there are delicacies of
feeling that could easily be trampled on if juxtaposed with something
more brutal. Sure, you might say, you have to work with sensitive
people; but we can’t always guarantee that and I wouldn’t suggest that,
as writers, we abandon the rights over our plays too easily.
I said that the formal principle is not unprecedented and indeed it isn’t. Simon Stephens’s Pornography
comprises seven sections (mostly monologues) which can be played by any
number of actors and in any order. Stephens did this because the play
was written for German director Sebastian Nübling and, so Stephens
thought, he was bound to much about with the text anyway, so why not
write a play that explicitly gives permission to be mucked about with.
Ironically, in the event, Nübling directed the play as written.
This is not the only affinity with
Stephens’s work. McCullough was taught by him on an Arvon course, I
believe, and he encouraged her writing; his recommendation is on the
publicity for this show. I would also say - and I think Katie would
admit this - that he is a big infliuence on the writing style. A
character like Alex is a classic Stephens creation, an unusually
articulate young man, in love with the world around him, thrilled by the
every day. Meanwhile Chloe’s predicament, filled with haunting urban
alienation and flashes of pornographic language recalls moments from Pornography, Motortown, Wastwater and others. Also visible is the influence of his deliberately naive writing, which I’ve discussed elsewhere,
where the simple, the beautiful, the direct, the sincere is valued over
the complex, the bleak, the twisted, the ironic. Look at these
You ever stuck your head in the deep freeze at the supermarket? Do it. Down the aisle where you have to lift open the doors. Open the door and then open your mouth, then breathe in deeply. It feels amazing.
These cameras are tiny. Size of a cotton wool tip, or a fingernail. Small enough for you to miss. It’s fascinating how minuscule they are. It’s like stuff you see in spy movies. Must take a certain skill to place them undetected.
I don’t think I mentioned it but you’re sitting next to me, on the plane. Your seat’s alright, it’s upright like it should be. When the hostess comes over she doesn’t look at me, not at first, she looks at you. She speaks to you. You look at me, you really look at me and for a few moments you do nothing. Then you try to help me put my seat up, you struggle the most and I just lie there urging you to do something and you are.
The risk of this writing is that it topples into the wildly undramatic or indeed the twee. I don’t suggest that I Still Get Excited When I See a Ladybird falls into these traps at all (though you can see the danger even in that title); the writing is vigorous and thrilling, always very confidently judged. But these have the quality of unironic compulsion that remind me of Stephens and these passages (and others) could have come from a Simon Stephens play. I mean that both as a compliment - Stephens is a really wonderful writer - and to sound a small note of caution: much as I admired this play, I am excited to see what Katie will write when she shrugs off her influences and more fully finds her own voice and style.