“I think theatre will come back and thrive.” Northern Soul talks to playwright Jonathan Harvey and director Joseph Houston
While theatres remain closed, many venues have created online events to connect with audiences. Hope Mill Theatre’s upcoming An Evening with Jonathan Harvey, hosted by actress and presenter Denise Welch, promises an unmissable mix of music, memories and special performances.
Harvey’s back catalogue includes TV comedies Gimme Gimme Gimme and Beautiful People, the much-loved play and film Beautiful Thing, and he also writes for Coronation Street. It is appropriate then that his Hope Mill evening should culminate in the launch of Through The Mill, the Manchester theatre’s new playwriting competition.
What does the guest of honour think about being the subject matter? Will there be shades of This Is Your Life with Harvey’s old English teacher popping up unexpectedly? And does he have an exciting final scene prepared?
“I’ve always got a big finish planned,” says Harvey. “I’m not expecting too many surprises, though. I’m so old now, I imagine all my schoolteachers are probably dead. I can reveal, however, that guests definitely taking part include an Oscar winner and an Olivier winner, so it’s winner, winner chicken dinner.”
The COVID-19 cloud is impossible to ignore. Soaps must reflect reality but audiences also need escapism, now more than ever. As a member of the Corrie scriptwriting team, has Harvey found it tricky to incorporate this into storylines?
“It is tricky. We write so far in advance so who knows what situation we’ll be in, say, six months from now? Things are evolving daily so it’s hard to predict. In terms of the arts in general, money has now been promised to support the sector. I just hope smaller spaces also survive, as well as big West End houses. There should be a way through as theatre is big business.”
Through The Mill is an exciting new opportunity for storytellers. For Harvey, Hope Mill’s playwriting competition takes him back to his own beginnings.
“I got into writing by entering competitions, so I’m all for them. The best way for a playwright to learn their craft is to see and hear their work read and performed, so the winner of this competition will learn loads. A million years ago, when I was a teacher, my manager’s appraisal said I was ‘fair but firm’ so I reckon that’s what I’ll be like as a mentor.”
The ‘blank page syndrome’ can affect even the most prolific of writers. Can Harvey sit down and write to order?
“I’m lucky that I get to do lots of different jobs so it’s rare that I don’t know at least what’s expected of me. Some days, though, it’s like pulling teeth. This is why I’m so active on social media.”
One of Harvey’s most popular pieces is Beautiful Thing. The play was first performed in 1993 and has since enjoyed several successful stage incarnations and been made into a successful film. Harvey has a few thoughts on why it has resonated with audiences through the years. “It’s a good piece for theatres to put on as it’s not expensive, just one set and five actors. I also think it’s an honest love story. Everyone remembers sharing a bed for the first time, making the first move, their first snog, so it I think it resonates in that way.”
Harvey wrote the book for the Dusty Springfield musical as well as the Pet Shop Boys’ Musik. As Victoria Wood created an Acorn Antiques stage show for her beloved Mrs Overall, isn’t it time for Harvey to revisit Gimme Gimme Gimme and furnish us with Lynda la Hughes: The Musical?
“Don’t encourage her,” he says. “Can you imagine? Nauseating.”
An Evening with is the second online event set up by Hope Mill. Re-adjusting to the ‘new normal’ took a bit of getting used to as the theatre’s artistic director Joseph Houston explains.
“At the start of lockdown, a lot of organisations and individuals quickly moved to online content. At that time, we had so much other stuff to deal with in terms of programming, how long things might go dark for and the furlough scheme, so it was a lot to get your head around.”
He continues: “We tested the waters in April with Some Enchanted Evening, a Rodgers & Hammerstein show. It brought in a lot of donations for the theatre, was viewed all over the world and showed us the reach and diverse audiences that online content can achieve. It is very much about quality over quantity. If we’re going to put something out, we want to spend a good amount of time on it to maintain a high standard. It’s obviously not comparable to live theatre, though.”
As for the theatre’s new playwriting competition, the commitment to supporting creative talent is something Houston and Hope Mill co-founder William Welton are keen to continue even in these testing times.
“We already hosted new work through Powerhouse Plays and so the next obvious stage for us is to take a new piece and produce it ourselves,” Houston explains. “The winner of Through The Mill gets a cash prize. Their script is developed, with Jonathan’s support and guidance, then produced at the theatre. I think theatre will come back and thrive but, in the meantime, we have to encourage growth even in the worst of scenarios.”
Main image: Jonathan Harvey.
An Evening with Jonathan Harvey is showing on July 18 and 19, 2020 at 8pm. Tickets £10. To book tickets, or for more information, click here.
To read our interview with Denise Walsh, patron of Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, click here.
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Supported by funding from @HeritageFundUK, Betty’s Back! will explore James’s life and works in the context of the 1920s, when the portrait was painted, and will also reveal artwork by Betty Durden Green for the first time.