With a cast whose credits include Coronation Street (writer and co-producer, Jennifer Banks) and Victoria Wood’s That Day We Sang (co-star, Tracy Gabbitas), Strife in a Northern Town can boast a double-act with proven acting pedigree, including an array of stand-up, improv and other comic forms. The resulting show has garnered plaudits for its deft portrayal of its subject matter’s grime, grimness and grit, thanks also to the director and producer, Rhonwen McCormack.

Having been performed live at Gullivers in October 2017, the play returned to the city on 28 June at 53Two and continues its tour to Buxton Fringe Festival in July.

Now Then’s Stage Editor, Sadia Habib, interviews Banks and Gabbitas about the new play, via Wigan supermarkets, Dream Academy and comedy formulae.

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The play’s title is immediately intriguing. How did you come up with this title and what is it meant to encapsulate?

[Jennifer]: Ha! Well, there is a story behind the title. Originally, it was called The Second Crappest Town – a title that is much more integral to the actual story – you’ll have to come and see it to find out why. The original title came about because the play was written when I returned to my hometown of Bradford after living in London for 15 years. It was a personal low point in my life. I’d just been made redundant, left a failing marriage and had gone back to live with my parents while deciding what to do next. There’s an annual Crap Towns poll that some website publishes and I remember seeing it when I returned home. Bradford was number two on the list – but the number one crap town was London! So I took heart from the fact that, despite everything else going wrong in my life, I had actually gone up in the world – moving from the Crappest Town to the Second Crappest Town!

However, when I came to produce the play, I decided the title wasn’t very media friendly – I couldn’t see myself getting too many invites to radio shows to talk about it with a swear word in the title (albeit a pretty mild one, in my opinion). So I set about thinking of a new title. There’s that great song, ‘Life In A Northern Town’ by Dream Academy, and I thought of that, and of making the title a play on words around that song. Using ‘strife’ instead of ‘life’ encapsulated what the play was all about, so I think it fits well.

Is the play based in a particular northern town?

[Jennifer]: The play itself is based in a random, nameless northern town. Because, although it was inspired by my home town of Bradford and how angry I felt at returning and seeing a decline and how demoralised people were, the themes of the show are universal and recognisable to people in any town. Also, when I started writing the play, I did some improvisations with a friend from Wigan who regaled me with hilarious stories about the supermarket where she worked – and two of the characters are actually based on her and one of her colleagues. So the characters are inspired by a mix of people from different places in the north.

Why did you feel it was important to write about austerity?

[Jennifer]: I actually wrote the play in 2014, before austerity was a thing. I wrote it in response to what I was seeing and feeling about what had happened in my hometown. I felt the council weren’t doing enough to regenerate the city. And generally I see political power structures as corrupt. I believe the vast majority of politicians do the job to serve themselves rather than the people – and that definitely comes out in the play.

Sadly, I think what was happening in Bradford at that time pretty soon became endemic throughout the whole country. So the play feels more universally relevant now than it did when I wrote it. It was almost like a prophecy. There’s a funny scene where my two town hall receptionist characters try and out-nice each other in response to callers wanting to access council services that have been cut. When I wrote that, it was really about the characters being ridiculous, but looking at it now, it’s taken on an entirely new layer of meaning, given we’re currently living in an age of austerity.

How did you ensure a play covering a difficult topic was also humorous?

[Jennifer]: I think that’s the job of comedy – to make difficult topics accessible. I’m a comedy nerd and could talk for hours about how comedy is constructed. One formula being: Comedy = Pain + Distance. People laugh at the painful situations they recognise, but they have enough distance from them to not feel the pain in the moment they’re laughing! So for me, laughter and pain are two sides of the same coin. I’ve written and performed stand-up and use the painful things from my life to create humour. That’s why humour exists! And the play has drama and sadness too, because life is a mixture of all those things. I’m from a family that uses humour to express things that might otherwise be difficult to express – so I couldn’t tell you exactly ‘how’ I did it, all I know is that it’s something I’ve been doing my whole life in some form or other.

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I read somewhere about you being concerned about class representation in theatre. Can you tell us more please?

[Jennifer]: I love theatre, but it is mostly by middle class people for middle class people. What I’m really proud of about this play is that it’s a working class story that’s attracting audiences who wouldn’t normally go to the theatre – because it’s reflecting back to them their lives and entertaining them at the same time. I remember one of the first shows we did in Manchester last year, a group of women who work in a supermarket came to see it. They loved it!

 

There are two of you playing many parts in the play. Was this overwhelming or exciting?

[Tracy]: A bit of both, really. It’s a very demanding script and it certainly took a lot of hard work and rehearsal to get it sharp. As an actor I’m always trying to push myself too, so I was also excited by the challenge.

[Jennifer]: It’s fun! It takes skill, imagination, thought and lots of energy to bring those characters to the stage, so there’s work involved too. I wrote the play because I wanted to challenge myself as a performer and also show off what I could do. I was also hugely influenced by The League of Gentlemen and a brilliant comedy duo called The Pajama Men, who play loads of characters in their shows. That’s the kind of comedy I like, so I set out to emulate it. I’m also currently rehearsing for a play called Trollope that’s on as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe in July. I play around a dozen characters in that. I think that when you’re doing two shows with around 20 characters between them, you can start to get into the realms of ‘overwhelm’! I’m all for challenging and stretching myself and that’s exactly what I’m doing. I must be mad.

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How have audiences thus far responded to the play?

[Tracy]: Very well. On the whole, the audiences have been warm and supportive. After all the hard work, it’s just been so rewarding to hear all the laughter and read the lovely audience feedback.

[Jennifer]: We’ve also had four and five star reviews, so that’s been lovely too.

Would the play resonate only for northern audiences? Or do you think southerners would appreciate the northern experience presented in the play?

[Tracy]: I must admit, I did wonder about this. We have done only one tour date down south, at the Drayton Arms in Kensington – and I didn’t need to worry at all. It was a fantastic evening, brilliant audience and we received some fab reviews too.

[Jennifer]: The themes are universal and the characters are recognisable, wherever you’re from. In London, the audience were hooked by the story and what was going on with the characters. In Bradford, they laughed raucously at the rude jokes and the northern humour. Both audiences enjoyed it, but it in different ways – because it’s a show that can be enjoyed on different levels. There are dirty jokes, but also every character has a story and goes on a journey. Every character is affected and changed by their experience. And there are underlying political and social themes.

Do you have plans to tour the UK?

[Jennifer]: We’re currently doing a small tour; we’ve been to Oldham, London, Leeds and Bradford. Next stop Manchester, then four dates at the Buxton Fringe Festival in July. And beyond that, who knows, maybe a bigger, more wide-ranging tour next year. I’d love to take it to Scotland, too. One of the characters is inspired by my Glaswegian grandmother, and I think they’d like it up there – they’re the most northern towns on this island after all.

Strife in a Northern Town will next be performed at Buxton Fringe Festival on Tuesday 10, Wednesday 11, Thursday 19 and Sunday 22 July.

Trollope plays as part of Greater Manchester Fringe Festival at Kings Arms on Friday 20 and Saturday 21 July.

Background art: Colourful Clouds Portrait by Kate Morgan.

Sadia Habib