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An Interview with Lucy Bird

We Need to Talk About Bobby (off EastEnders) at the King's Head Theatre

We Need to Talk About Bobby (off EastEnders), the debut play from George Attwell Gerhards and emerging theatre company Paperback, is a response to the depictions of “crazy child killers” in popular stories such as We Need to Talk About Kevin, Punk Rock and even the most recent series of Sherlock. After a successful Edinburgh Fringe run, the play is coming to London’s Kings Head Theatre. London Calling talked to director Lucy Bird.

London Calling: Introduce us to Paperback Theatre Company!
Lucy Bird: Paperback is a company we formed at the University of Warwick in 2016, our last year of university. We want to create shows which respond to a group of texts, films or stories rather than adapting one novel.  When you look at one specific story or book or play, you suddenly start to see its echo in other stories. We were really interested in how theatre can respond to these stories that pop up again and again and talk about why those stories are still being told. We are based in Birmingham and we are really passionate about regional theatre; we took our new show to Edinburgh Fringe last year and are bringing it to London now.

LC: To the King’s Head no less, which is one of those venues that programme really ambitious issue-based theatre
LB: It’s a real privilege to perform in that venue alongside all the other amazing plays they are doing at the moment.

LC: Could you maybe remind us of the controversy around Bobby off EastEnders?
LB: Bobby Beale was a long lasting story line on EastEnders in which a young girl, Lucy Beale, was killed, and there was an ongoing police investigation into who killed her that literally lasted two years. For people who watch EastEnders, it became a bit of a national zeitgeist thing. Then for their anniversary production, they revealed that Lucy’s killer was actually Bobby Beale, her 12 year old little brother. That sparked huge excitement and outrage, all the newspapers went crazy, it was a big shock compounded by the fact that he was such a young boy. For us as a company we became really interested in the way that, as a society,  we find the idea of child murderers so fascinating. We felt this was one of numerous examples of violent children being used to titillate audiences without exploring the actual experience of that child and why he had come to be so violent.

LC: Your child character, Annie, is a child actress
LB: What we explore in the play is the experience of the child actors who play these roles. The producer of EastEnders spoke about how he told Eliot Carrington, who plays Bobby, that his character is going to be the one that’s guilty of the murder. He sat down with him and began by saying: “Bobby is being a naughty boy.” I find that really chilling. I think there’s a really big question about how we talk to young people about topics and that is what our play is touching on. It’s about the little boy who is told to stand there and say those words in a certain way so the people at home will enjoy themselves. It’s about the little girl who is told not to worry about what it all means because it’s only pretend. 
Annie is a child actress and she gets cast in an adult TV drama. The audience really take to her so the producer starts to develop her storyline more. And they decide that the storyline is for her father to return and to start grooming her and there is going to be an implication that he is assaulting her. That is obviously a very complex topic to explain to a twelve or thirteen year old actress who is playing that role.

Once we decided that our play would explore the story of a female child actor rather than a male, discussions about how we talk about sexual assault and puberty and sexuality with children came to the forefront of the play a lot more. We have so many child actors in hard-hitting dramas who are forced to perform trauma essentially, and the levels of safeguarding and protection on set seem so shallow, because a lot of it seems to miss those initial conversations.
Our play really tries to push that as far as we can to show how complex the effect can be. At the heart of it lies how we talk to young people about sex and sexuality.

LC: Since you took the show to Fringe last year, the #MeToo movement broke. How does that affect the show?
LB: I think a lot of people felt that light was being shed on something we already knew. When I researched for Bobby, I came across all these stories of actresses saying they were really uncomfortable with the situations they were put in. A lot of people were trying to start a conversation, they just didn’t know how. #MeToo didn’t change our play, it just feels more urgent now. I have huge respect for those who have come out and shared their experiences and that changed the framing for these plays to happen and for people to realise these conversations need to happen as we go forward.
We Need to Talk About Bobby (off EastEnders) is at the King’s Head Theatre 25 & 26 March