Interview with Jake Brunger

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Image © Jack Sain 2016

We chat to Jake Brunger about his favourite bits of theatre, late-night writing and his new show Four Play.

Writer Jake Brunger is known for his musical collaborations with Pippa Cleary, including a musical version of Adrian Mole, but his latest work seems set to establish his talent as a solo playwright. He discusses his favourite pieces of theatre - and the perils of late-night writing - ahead of the upcoming show at Theatre503.

London Calling: Your work Four Play is opening at Theatre503 this February after being commissioned by Old Vic New Voices last year. How have the rehearsals been going?

Jake Brunger: Writers have a very strange relationship with rehearsal periods: I think different things work out for different people. I like to go and hear them read aloud, but I think it’s always best to leave the actors alone to explore things themselves. I’m not there to judge at all - I think actors are sometimes fearful of what the writer thinks of their performance. For everyone’s sanity it’s better for me to stay away, and then pop in and see how the process is going. In the last few years of working in theatre, I’ve definitely learnt when it is appropriate to say something and when to let it go.

LC: The play’s idea of a couple struggling with fidelity and commitment is a universal theme rather than one unique to gay couples. You’ve described Four Play as a ‘state of the nation gay play’, which is what the Old Vic commissioned you to write. Why do you think that these issues are tearing our nation apart?

JB: I think we are the first generation to have grown up with Facebook and Twitter. We’re all looking at other people’s lives and going ‘Oooh, that’s better than mine.’ If your boyfriend has cooked you dinner, someone else’s boyfriend has taken them out for dinner at the top of the Shard. We’re always wanting what we think we don’t have, because everyone presents the best edited highlights of their lives. In terms of settling down, it means that everyone questions whether they are with the right person a lot more. It’s so much easier in this day and age to get a new Tinder date if the last one doesn’t go well, so even sticking with dating someone is difficult. It’s causing a lot of long-term damage to our generation. In particular, a lot of our parents are on their second marriages, and that’s a normal thing. As the generation following that, we all feel that effect, and I really wanted to write a play that examined how you know whether you’re with the right person.

LC: I think we often strive for perfection because so much more is available to us than previous generations. So how would you describe the tone of the play?

JB: It trips you up a bit because it starts as a comedy. I’d say the first twenty-five minutes are out-and-out bawdy comedy, and then it takes a bit of a turn. Not in a major way, I’ve not written the new Chekhov or anything - although obviously Chekhov is very funny - but it becomes quite serious and ultimately quite sad. People often ask me to describe my writing, and I never intentionally try to write comedy. It’s more situational - if it’s funny, it’s because that’s what the characters demand rather than because I’ve sat down trying to force one-liners into the script.

LC: You’ve worked closely with Pippa Cleary on collaborative musical projects. What’s your writing process like when you write plays alone?

JB: There’s no typical day, which is one of the interesting things about doing collaborative and solo work. When I’m with Pippa, we have a very structured day; usually 10-3pm, because we work so intensively when we’re together that we can’t do a full day. The freedom when you work alone is lovely. I find that the best hours I write are 10pm until about 1am, but then I can’t sleep until 3am because my mind is still buzzing...and then I wake up late... It really is when inspiration strikes though. My playwriting tutor Leo Butler at the Royal Court used to say he’d get more work done in his head on a long walk than he would sitting at his desk in a whole day. People might think I’m a bit of a wanker for saying that, but it’s true. Sometimes you do need the discipline of sitting down and forcing yourself to put something on a page though. With musicals, Pippa and I often spend days on a song that we have to scrap because it isn’t right, but you always gain something from that creative process.

LC: One of your big successes was your adaptation of Adrian Mole into a musical. Were there any parts of Sue Townsend’s novel you had to leave out, that didn’t translate creatively?

JB: Adaptation is so interesting. You’ve got the purists and the people who do something wildly different. With Adrian Mole, the characters and stories are so good you don’t need to veer from it, but there were some bits that we had to leave out. Probably the most notable was Queenie [the woman who becomes Bert Baxter’s girlfriend]. We tried to give that storyline to the grandma character instead, but that felt phony, and in the end we did let it go. There are tiny things real purists will make a fuss about: we couldn’t put Bert Baxter’s dog in, but there’s nothing I hate more than offstage barking effects, and the Mole family already had a dog, which was operated by one of the children. If you had that theatrical device twice, it wouldn’t quite work.

LC: Which writers do you admire?

JB: My favourite TV writer at the moment is Sally Wainwright. She wrote Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax. Her early work At Home with the Braithwaites was partly what inspired me to pursue writing: she takes very real characters and puts them in truthful scenarios, and the humour in her writing stems from that. In terms of theatre writers, Rebecca Gilman is my favourite playwright. I also like David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People - I went to see it four times. And his play Rabbit Hole is opening next week! I think making play texts available to young writers is really important, as often new writing is only performed once. The last time I saw a Rebecca Gilman play on stage was in 2003, but she still remains my favourite writer from reading her play texts.

LC: What about directing? Would you ever try it, or are you more interested in the writing side?

JB: When I moved to London I did a bit as an assistant, and I think it really helped me to develop as a writer: I learned about structure, and what actors want out of their parts. I haven’t really picked up the directing bug though, but that’s simply because writing has occupied my attention for so long. There are definitely plays out there where I go, ‘God, I’d really like to do that’, I guess out of admiration for the writer. When I first moved to London I went to the theatre maybe four times a week because I loved it so much.

LC: What’s the best production you’ve seen recently?

JB: Of all 2015 theatre, bizarrely the show I liked the most was a completely textless play. It was What’s it all about? at the Menier Chocolate Factory, directed by Frantic Assembly’s Steven Hoggett. It’s just the lyrics of Burt Bacharach songs, but it was mind-blowing, because in the ninety-minute song cycle it distils those songs down to their absolute core. You realise what the power of great song writing can give you, and how hard it can hit you emotionally when it’s so stripped-back.

LC: Where do you hang out in London?

JB: I only like going to places where you can have a conversation, I’m a proper chatterbox. I mainly just hang out in pubs - anywhere that does good beer on tap. I also like the National Theatre Understudy bar, but the Soho Theatre bar in particular is great because whatever the time of day, you run into someone you know from the industry. Nobody outside the theatre world seems to go there. You feel very pretentious, but I think all the writers of London head there to escape the loneliness of writing. And to procrastinate. Definitely to procrastinate!

Four Play is on at Theatre 503 from 16 February - 12 March 2016. You can get tickets here.