Articles: Tim Firth (1992 / 2002)

This article was first published in the October 2012 edition of the SJT Circular.

Twenty years ago in 1992, Tim Firth’s play Neville’s Island premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round with extraordinary success. Since then, Tim has found fame on stage as well as in film and television. To mark the anniversary of Neville’s Island, Tim Firth talked about his experiences to the Circular.

Simon Murgatroyd: Neville’s Island celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, what is your strongest memory?
Tim Firth:
The way the whole theatre smelt of sausage! Also the night there was a guide dog in the front row. He lay fast asleep until the sausage scene at which point he woke up, tracked the progress of the sausage around the stage intently for five minutes and then sat up and started wagging his tail as the actor playing Angus approached him bearing the frying pan with the sausage in. When the sausage went in the water and bobbed past him he looked with such pain to his owner in a ‘can I? It’s just there, I could take it now..’- kind of way. When the act ended he had to leave the auditorium knowing it was still there and led his blind charge out whilst looking mournfully backwards.

This was your first produced full length play. How did you find the experience?
The writing was relatively fluid because, in the glorious innocence of relative youth, I felt no pressure. I had nothing to lose. Or at least if I did, I wasn’t aware of it. Consequently it was a fast and pleasurable write. When Alan saw it in rehearsal his only comment was ‘one too many blackouts in the second act’ which was true. I cut a scene, but largely the play remained intact from the very first draft. That said, I continually rewrite as I go along, so it wasn’t anything too biblical.

The play has a tremendous reaction, were you surprised by the response?
I was hugely surprised by the response to Neville’s Island. The reaction to the one act play A Man Of Letters - which gained me the commission - had been strong, but Neville’s Island was in a different league. In a sense you have to be careful because laughter, the gaining of laughter, can be intoxicating as a playwright and draw you off course. I still feel the need to make audiences laugh too early in a show and haven’t learned from Alan whose response curve is always a steady incline. That said, there were lines in the second act which, surprisingly to me, drew rounds of applause. I mentioned this to a director who said ‘that’s partly because the audience are applauding themselves for remembering’. It was the first time I realized that the perfect comic structure is a build, an accretion, a stone cairn as it were, rather than a series of individual impacts.

Neville’s Island was initially staged in the round before its West End transfer to proscenium arch, do you think one worked better than the other and which is your preference?
To be honest, they both work fine and thank God they do because a play that only worked in the round would have a very short life. Personally I prefer the round for one reason; the dramatic refocusing of creativity it demands. No set can be higher than a couple of feet so the design demands high levels of invention and is the more exciting for it. Everything becomes about character, pace, lighting, props and the mobilization of imagination. There is also a pervading sense that your seat has been built into the location like the racked stands at a golf tournament. The backcloth is always faces. It feels more ‘live’ as an event. A debate, a dogfight, a dissection. I have known it be all these things.

Your first play at the SJT was A Man Of Letters in 1991, how did you become involved with the theatre?
In two words, Connal Orton. I’d known him at university. He went straight up to work as an assistant at SJT and slipped a one act play of mine to Alan with a view to my writing a lunchtime show. I travelled across from my home in Cheshire to meet them both, and was shown the old cafeteria where the lunchtime shows used to be performed. Consequently I went home convinced I was writing something for dinner theatre. Connal directed that play and then went on to direct Neville’s Island.

The Safari Party also marks its 10th anniversary this year, which was another big hit with audience.
I loved the reaction of the audience to the structure of that play. After forty minutes they were back in the bar wondering what the hell was going on. The second act of the three then became a land of wonder, a new sensation for most people. The three act play has so died out as a form that no-one could remember having sat through one, certainly not one of three such short acts. There was a curious effervescence about the evening. The whole thing felt light and aerated, like an Aero bar rather than a slab of Galaxy. I still don’t think I’ve ever known a reaction to any piece of mine like the middle act and I think this has a huge amount to do with this vibe.

Alan Ayckbourn directed The Safari Party, what was it like working with him?
Alan’s main strength as a director of new work is that he can give notes as a director rather than as a writer. He can differentiate ‘this is what the play needs’ from ‘this is how I would have written it’.

Did Alan give you any advice which you’ve found particularly helpful?
Write. Write for theatre. Write what makes you laugh. Write comedy that isn’t about jokes. Write about people you care about even if you hate them. Write quickly, plan slowly. Write rather than preach. Write rather than lecture. Write plays that entice people off a beach. Write plays that people who don’t go to the theatre would want to see. But above all, write.

How did you begin your playwriting career?
When I left college I went to the Manchester Youth Theatre and lied that I desperately wanted to write a play about a piece of local history for a load of kids. They were, of course, interested. I wrote it. It was performed. I suddenly had a play on at the Library Theatre and I started learning from my public mistakes, which is so necessary for a playwright. I didn’t see myself as too serious an ‘artist’ to go touting for work, and it was a powerful lesson to learn. Write - whatever way, for whatever money and for whichever stage. Chances are the best play you’ll ever write is the one you knock off to pay the bills while you whittle away lovingly at the masterpiece which ends up stalled.

Your career successfully encompasses stage, television and film. Do you have a favourite?
Stage. No contest.

Finally, if there was one piece of advice you could give an aspiring writer, what would it be?
Don’t sit around waiting for things to come to you. Muses and artistic directors are things that can be hunted down. Plan long, write fast. Keep fit. Don’t get cynical. Don’t read reviews, good or bad. Keep faith with your own sensibility. And know when a list of pieces of advice has gone on too long.

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce this article without the permission of the copyright holder.