Stephen M Hornby and Ric Brady, the writers and founders of Pagelight Produtions, are about to take their play, The Box of Tricks, on tour. It’s a moving story about brothers which asks if forgiveness can ever come too late. The pair’s writing style, impressive working relationship and bold storytelling have caught the attention of Arts Council England, having twice received funding. I spoke to Stephen about the upcoming tour.

Tell us about the show.

The Box of Tricks is a new play written by Ric Brady and me. It’s about two brothers growing up together, their relationship with their mother and aunt and what that means to them as young men. Mike is the older and when the play opens, his younger brother, Karl, has just been killed. We see them growing up from four-year-olds to their early 20s in flashbacks. There’s a mystery over why they fell out and why Mike won’t speak at the funeral. It’s got some intense and emotional scenes, but it’s also got lots of comedy in it.

What compelled you to write a play like this?

Both Ric and I have had experiences of grief, though thankfully neither of us has lost a brother. I think we wanted to explore how grief can send everyone crazy for a bit, how it reveals who people really are and how it throws everything that life is about into question. Theatrically, I’m also interested in transformations. It’s always struck me that one of the magical things about theatre is seeing people change in front of you.

We’ve got two really talented and physical actors playing the brothers [Sam Thompson and Ryan Clayton]. I love the magic of an actor sat on the floor being a convincing seven-year-old playing with a dinosaur and, by the time he’s stood up, he’s a 29-year-old man full of anger and grief. Sam, who plays Mike, does such an excellent job at that. It’s mesmerising to watch and I’m sure very demanding for him to perform. But then, we like challenging our actors.

The play was first performed at last year’s 24:7 Festival. How has it changed?

A lot. 24:7 Theatre Festival was a really good launch pad for the play. It also gave us a mentor, the fantastic Helen Parry, who went on to direct both versions of the play. She’s given us some dramaturgical support in the script’s development. For touring, we needed to cut the play down from five characters to three, so big changes. Essentially, all the scenes in the present – coping with Karl’s death – were rewritten and I wanted to add a teenage scene. In the first version of the play, we saw the brothers as children and as young men, but we missed them out in the crucial adolescent years. I think the end result is really funny.

How does your writing relationship work with Ric?

Lots of Skype and email, as Ric is based in France. So it’s a long-distance writing relationship, but at some stages in the writing process I feel like I see him more than anyone else in my life. Ric is great at structure and plotting, and knows immediately when something is going off at a tangent. I’m good at stage imagery and dialogue. I’m the poet and he’s the screenwriter, and we find stage plays in the middle.

What do you want to achieve from your writing?

Personally, I’m still learning a lot. Ric and I are National Writers in Residence for Lesbian & Gay History Month, and we wrote and produced A Very Victorian Scandal earlier this year. That was only my second Art Council England funded play with a professional cast and director. It’s early days yet, but our company has a simple aspiration – to create emotionally engaging, original drama.

Is this your first time touring? What are you most looking forward to?

Yes, in the sense of a funded Northern area tour. I’ve had a previous company, Conical Productions, and was on tour with that when I used to act. So, I’ve some idea of what to expect, but this is Pagelight’s first tour. I’m looking forward to seeing how all the different spaces change the performances and dynamics of the show.

You’ve had a cast change. How has that affected the play?

We were delighted to keep Sam Thompson and Judy Holt from the original production. Sam Moran played Karl in the first version of the play and did a brilliant job, but had subsequently moved to Bristol. I had the pleasure of seeing the excellent final year shows of the ALRA students. ALRA standards are very high and so everyone on stage was great, but a couple stood out, one of which was Ryan Clayton. Ryan brings a whole new energy to the part and makes lots of different choices to those that the original Karl made. Sam Thompson has been really receptive to his new baby brother and allowed that to also change his performance, and so a new dynamic between the brothers has emerged. It’s been really fascinating to watch.

The Box of Tricks is touring the north towards the end of October and is back in Salford at Kings Arms on 27 and 28 November.
pagelightp.com

Stephen (@stephenmhornby) runs the Salford Writers’ Lab – @SalfordWriters.

Kate Morris