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Star Interview: From Katie Hopkins to Shakespeare for Sheffield playwright Chris Bush

Playwright Chris Bush in Sheffield. Picture: Dean Atkins
Playwright Chris Bush in Sheffield. Picture: Dean Atkins

A full diary is good news for a playwright. Chris Bush’s work is gathering pace, giving her a crammed schedule for 2018. First there was The Assassination of Katie Hopkins, a daring musical that imagined how the public might respond to the abrasive media personality’s death; now she’s readying her new production of Shakespeare’s romance Pericles at the National Theatre in London, to be quickly followed by another freshly-penned play, Steel, in the Crucible Studio in Sheffield, her home city.

Chris looks thrilled at what sounds like 12 months of plate-spinning.

Playwright Chris Bush in Sheffield. Picture: Dean Atkins

Playwright Chris Bush in Sheffield. Picture: Dean Atkins

“I do feel massively fortunate,” she says. “This year is probably three or four times busier than any previous year of my career so far. It does feel there’s some sort of momentum coming together.”

She’s back in Sheffield for the weekend to begin mentoring a group of writers at the Crucible – as a happy consequence, it means getting looked after by her parents ‘as only they can’ – and finds a quiet spot in the theatre to talk before the session starts.

We meet as the Hopkins musical is finishing its run at Theatr Clwyd in Mold, North Wales. It’s been well-reviewed, with most of the national papers making the trip to see it; the consensus seems to be that Chris and her co-writer, composer Matt Winkworth, managed to pull off the conceit of presenting a fictional story in a verbatim style, with material such as TV clips, YouTube videos and voicemails introduced as ‘found footage’.

Audiences left ‘with their heads buzzing a bit’, Chris says, as they were not told what to think. “That always felt crucial.”

Some would have preferred her to pick a side. But, she points out, ‘too much’ of the political theatre made in Britain has a specific agenda in mind. “It’s a little bit self-serving. Obviously I have my own opinions on Katie Hopkins and I’ve not disguised those. Primarily, writing a show that’s two hours about what a terrible human being she is just isn’t good drama – it isn’t interesting and doesn’t have anything worth saying.”

But did she and Matt not worry about giving Hopkins the oxygen of publicity? Predictably, the former Apprentice contestant, columnist and prolific Twitter user claimed to be outraged and spent £2,000 on hiring a truck with a digital billboard to protest against the musical outside Theatr Clwyd.

“It was definitely something we talked about. But she’s now been in the public eye for a decade and shows no sign of going away, and is very good at garnering publicity. We knew and had to accept that when the show was announced she would try and use it to her own ends. To be fair, it is her right and if someone was writing a show about me I would respond to it as well.”

Chris, 31, grew up in Walkley – ‘just off Bole Hill Road’ – and went to Myers Grove School, then sixth form at King Edward VII in Broomhill. Her mother, a teacher, has a degree in drama, while her father, who lectures in architecture at Huddersfield University, ran Sheffield University’s drama studio for several years while studying there.

“Me and my sister, as kids, were always being taken to the theatre,” says Chris. This was the turn of the millennium, when Michael Grandage was artistic director of Sheffield Theatres.

“It felt like he couldn’t put a foot wrong, really. I can’t think of a much better place to grow up and experience theatre than Sheffield in the late 90s and early 2000s.”

There wasn’t much drama on the curriculum at Myers Grove, a state of affairs Chris cleverly fixed. “Me and a group of about five others managed to persuade the school to do a short course in GCSE drama – because we were interested, but also because the only time they could then fit it in was on a Wednesday afternoon when otherwise we’d have to do compulsory PE,” she says.

Chris was a fan of the Sheffield Children’s Festival, which gave young people the chance to tread the boards at the Crucible. “I was here, and then two months later Kenneth Branagh was on the same stage. It’s pretty impressive.”

Others spotted a promising talent; Chris won a national young playwright’s contest and had her work performed by professional actors on a tour of the South East. The experience was hugely encouraging – she attended York University on the strength of its drama society, and while still a student wrote the acclaimed Tony! The Blair Musical with composer Ian McCluskey. It was staged in Edinburgh after Chris graduated, coinciding with Blair’s departure.

Writing ‘felt very instinctive’, but she didn’t rate her own acting ability. “I was never very good. I could do enough to get a bit part in the background.”

She wrote her first play aged 13, ‘in a slightly obnoxious way’. “I don’t think I could bring myself to read it again. It was called Harsh Reality, and it definitely had a lot of angst going on. It was quite moody and teenage.”

Were her teens and 20s a time spent getting to grips with her own identity? “Yeah... and it’s not really something I’m going to talk about. I feel like it’s not relevant to my work.”

The theatre world has been hugely supportive.

“You couldn’t ask for a better community than working in theatre which I think, historically, has been a home for various outcasts and misfits or whatever. There definitely are still ongoing questions about diversity, and we’re not all the way there yet. Just look at it in terms of general gender representation – there’s an interesting discussion at the moment about whether or not theatres should be bringing in quotas to ensure we’re getting 50/50 gender parity.”

Along with Steel, in the coming months Sheffield Theatres has another two new plays from female writers lined up – Hang, by Debbie Tucker Green, and Close Quarters, by Kate Bowen.

“They are very much valuing equality and diversity in exactly the way you’d hope they would.”

Steel has reached the casting stage; a two-hander focusing on local politics and the role of women in the Labour Party, it shifts between 1988 and 2018, charting the changes, or lack of, over the past three decades.

The present-day tale looks at a young female candidate in the mayoral elections – “Which, of course, is purely fiction because the candidacy was an entirely male shortlist again” – while the 1988 story depicts a young steelworker ‘who would be the first woman of colour on the council at that point’.

Chris is a signed-up Labour Party member but doesn’t think the party, mired in allegations of anti-Semitism within its ranks, is beyond criticism.

Is she an admirer of Jeremy Corbyn?

“I’m neither a dyed-in-the-wool supporter nor an antagonist. The whole ‘Corbyn is unelectable’ thing might be a myth, but it is a pervasive enough myth now that part of me does wonder if a clean slate would be better. I don’t know who the saviour of the party is.

“It feels like the Tories are just a little bit better at saying ‘We can all come together on the notion of being evil’.”

Pericles, meanwhile, is shaping up to be a real spectacle, involving 200 community performers from across London – mainly people who, Chris says, ‘don’t know theatre belongs to them, which it absolutely does’.

It will build on her work with the Sheffield People’s Theatre company, which produces similarly large-scale shows. “I’ve had nothing to do with this year’s production and it’s sort of heartbreaking to not be there.”

Would Chris describe herself as ambitious?

“Oh yes. Very much so. I think I am quite driven. There’s literally nothing else I really know how to do, or want to do, beyond writing, primarily theatre. It’s great when it all works out. As and when it dries up who knows what I will end up doing.”

Such a scenario seems deeply unlikely. There’s certainly no lack of ideas; she has a wish list of future projects, among them a ‘very specific version’ of Dr Faustus and a ‘spoken-word/rap/hip-hop musical retelling of the Odyssey’.

Lots of producers were invited to see the Hopkins musical – surely it deserves to return?

“At the moment we just don’t know. We’re keeping our fingers crossed. It’s there and it’s good to go.”

Chris lives in London these days but will always come back to Sheffield. “Whenever they’ll have me. I know I’m biased, but there is not a stage better then the Crucible.”

Pericles is at the National Theatre from August 26 to 28. Steel is in the Crucible Studio from September 13 to October 6.

‘Bringing a script to life can feel like alchemy’

Writing for theatre is a form like no other, Chris Bush believes.

“I don’t know any other feeling like sitting in a theatre and an audience responding to something I’ve written as it comes alive. There is something very special about what theatre does that, for me, no form of writing – be it prose, or poetry, or even screenwriting or TV – does in quite the same way, of having that immediate connection, and feeding off it.”

Being a dramatist is also less solitary, she thinks, than the life of a novelist.

“The nature of it is so collaborative; being surrounded by all these other incredible, creative, inspiring people who have their own areas of expertise. I can do words – that’s the bit I can get my head around – but I’ve no idea how to make it look like something, or what it’s going to sound like. With musical theatre there have to be composers and choreographers, and the world suddenly becomes very big. The script is just your Ikea manual, if you like, it’s not your finished artistic product. It’s a sketch of what something might be. It can feel like alchemy.”