Simon Stephens: Stockport state of mind

The Smiths, a dead sparrow, heading home on the top deck of the 192 bus … Simon Stephens on writing Port, about the town he thought he'd left behind

One Monday morning before Christmas, I sat in a rehearsal room at the National theatre in London and heard my play Port read in English for the first time in 10 years. It was Graham Whybrow, the former literary manager of the Royal Court, who suggested I write about my hometown of Stockport in Greater Manchester. Until then, all the plays I'd written had been about places I'd moved to – York, Edinburgh, London. So when I was given a commission by Manchester's Royal Exchange, it made sense to write about where I was born.

I returned to the town for weeks at a time, my visits coinciding with the last few months of my dad's life. The combination of seeing old friends, going to places I'd not been to for years, and watching my dad fight cancer are manifest in the play, in ways I've only now come to realise. The places where I'd grown up became my dramatic landscape: the Mersey Way shopping centre and Stockport bus station, drab municipal shells sitting in the shadow of the mighty viaduct. And the kids I'd been to school with and worked with in shit weekend jobs gave me its characters. They were dryly funny, smart and skint. The music we had all listened to came to inform the play's structure.

Port is about a place and a time – south Manchester in the late 1980s – that was charged with music. I wanted to dramatise that charge. I wanted the play to have the same effect on an audience that the Fall, New Order, the Smiths, the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses had on me. I tried to build scenes with the same pace and structure as their songs. I tried to evoke the imagery of their lyrics in my dialogue.

I wasn't the only one who loved reimagining the place: Marianne Elliott, who directed the play in 2002 and is reviving it for the National, spent much of her childhood in Stockport. I suspect she wanted to revive the play partly because she, too, loved going back in her imagination. Creativity and nostalgia come from the same part of our brains.

But Port isn't just important to me because it's my first play about my hometown; it's also my first with a female character at its heart. To begin with, I thought I would write about a man going back to Stockport – partly, I think, because I'd been raised as a writer to believe that male writers couldn't write women. But at the time I was sharing an office with a fellow playwright, Leo Butler, and one morning he gave me a copy of his startling play, Redundant – a heartfelt excavation of a girl's life in the housing estates of Sheffield. I was as inspired as I was excited. Rather than writing about a man returning, I would write about a woman leaving.

So I went back home and interviewed five women who had lived in Stockport all their lives – relatives, old friends, friends of my mum. The oldest was my 85 year-old nana; the youngest my teenage cousin. They told me about their jobs and marriages, their aspirations and frustrations. Many of these stories – from the discovery of a dead sparrow to a disastrous New Year's Eve in a hotel – made it into the fabric of the play.

The story began to develop: a series of scenes focused on one character, Racheal Keats. We watch her grow up. We watch her deal with a family falling apart and a complicated marriage, with a broken-hearted brother who has criminal proclivities, and with the love of her life. She's open-eyed, tough, brilliantly optimistic. Somebody once said I write women who I wished existed in real life, so I could spend time with them. Writing Racheal was like that.

Sitting in the National, I now realise that the Stockport of Port, which has been performed in Austria and Sweden, is more a place of my imagination. Sometimes, coming back to this play has felt like sitting on the back seat of the top deck of the 192 bus with Marianne and Racheal, listening to the Stone Roses and talking about Paul Scholes – heading out of Manchester, heading home.


Simon Stephens

The GuardianTramp

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