Ella Carmen Greenhill’s play Plastic Figurines, now touring across the North West to venues including Bury Met and The Lowry, explores autism and the relationship between siblings with very different views of the world.
Directed by Adam Quayle of Manchester-based Box Of Tricks theatre company, who premièred Tom Morton-Smith’s impressive In Doggerland in 2013, the drama is inspired by events in playwright Greenhill’s own life and tells the story of a sister and her autistic brother (Rose and Michael respectively), learning to relate to each other in the wake of their mother’s sudden death from leukaemia.
But Greenhill, who was a writer-on-attachment with the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse and a writer-in-residence with Paines Plough, as well as part of the Skylines project with the Royal Exchange, insists that, although “this is in many ways a very personal play, inspired by my own experiences of autism, sibling relationships and losing my mum, at the same time it is a complete work of fiction. Rose and Michael are very close to my heart but they are not me and my brother.
“I’m not making documentaries here, I’m writing stories, even if there’s a bit of my own life in there.
“During the research process I spoke to a lot of people about their experiences of being close to someone on the autistic spectrum and a great piece I read said ‘if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism’. I think that’s so true and it really gave me the freedom to show my own experience through the play.”
It began life, she tells Northern Soul, as a much shorter piece which toured as part of Word:Play a couple of years ago, comprising three short plays from North West writers alongside three pieces from writers based in the South.
“Box Of Tricks became aware then that this was a project I wanted to work on further, so we’ve been working together to get Plastic Figurines to this stage. So it now feels like Adam and I have learnt the play together and got to know the characters in the same time-frame, which in my experience is a unique pleasure for a writer.
“It has changed and expanded but pretty much all of that original short is still in there. I’d packed a lot in to it and the first thing I needed to do was all about pulling it and stretching it, expanding moments that were already there. Then I went over it to see what it was that was missing, and realised what we needed to see was more of brother and sister just having a bit of a laugh and a silly time together, despite having some quite tragic things happen to them. I needed to find those lovely, funny moments you can get in any family. In fact, I’d now say that of all my work, it’s the funniest.”
As many very fine writers, not least Jonathan Harvey, have done over the years, Greenhill has recently been doing some work with Coronation Street.
“I’m doing lots of different things at the moment and I’m just beginning to realise how each of those things helps you with something else. That trial for Coronation Street gave me lots of ideas for new plays. It’s just about opening different bits of your brain,” she enthuses.
She is also excited, as are many of us, by the eagerness of audiences to embrace new writing, at least when given half the chance.
“It is about theatres, venues and companies being prepared to take those, sometimes challenging, things, and say ‘yeah, we’re going to put those in front of an audience because it needs to be seen’. And I think audiences are trusting that now, as the success of those plays in so-called mainstream venues goes to show. I have no doubt that people really do want to see new stuff as well as those plays where you know exactly what you’re going to get. That can be fun and lovely but there are also those plays that you come out of and you can’t not have a conversation. People really do want that, I believe.”
By Kevin Bourke
Plastic Figurines is at Bury Met on April 22, 2015 and The Lowry on May 6, 2015 as well as touring to venues including Hull Truck; Square Chapel Centre for the Arts, Halifax; The Atkinson, Southport; Whitby Hall, Ellesmere Port; The Mill at the Pier, Wigan; The Civic, Barnsley; and Harrogate Studio Theatre. Check www.boxoftrickstheatre.co.uk.