John Tiffany and Jack Thorne: ‘It’s a play about people struggling to be good’

The duo behind vampire hit Let the Right One In talk about their new, anti-austerity play, set in a Labour council

Jack Thorne: the hardest-working writer in Britain?

In a south London rehearsal room, the director John Tiffany (Black Watch, Once) and the writer Jack Thorne (This Is England 88, The Fades) are telling me about their morning outing to Westminster, where they and the cast of their new play spent time with Hilary Benn, the shadow secretary of state for communities and local government.

“It was a wonderful hour,” says Tiffany, slightly to my amazement. “It fired the actors up; you could see that afterwards. Hilary used to be a councillor in Ealing, and to hear him talk about his achievements in local government – a ‘No entry’ sign he got put up, a set of railings he saved – felt so fresh and true to actors who will be playing characters just like him. He’s given us an urgent kind of energy.”

And will there now be another trip to meet Eric Pickles, Benn’s opposite number? The pair look mildly appalled. “This is a play about the Labour party,” says Thorne, quietly.

Hope examines the effect of the government’s austerity measures on a council in a small, possibly northern town (we’re never told where it is, but Thorne, who was commissioned to write it by the Royal Court, used to be active in the Labour party in Luton).

“I wanted to write a play about people who are struggling to be good,” says Thorne, who has been “fascinated” by local government since childhood (his father was a town planner). “I hope it’s not an anti-Tory play, but the fact is that these cuts are falling predominantly on Labour councils. It is a call to arms,” he says. “I’m asking: how are we [the Labour party] going to do this? Austerity has been used as a weapon to beat us with for so long. But what does it mean that we’re shutting places that help people? This is a play about pragmatism versus principle. It’s the argument we’ve been having since Blair, and we haven’t resolved it yet.”

For the rehearsal period, Tiffany has encouraged each member of the company to adopt a local council. He chose Kirklees in West Yorkshire (he’s from Huddersfield). “I check in every week,” he says. “But there’s never any good news. There’s nothing left to cut, and yet they’ve got to lose another £69m over the next three years.”

This isn’t, you soon gather, a project that has much in common with, say, The Thick of It, for all that it will star Paul Higgins, who played the foul-mouthed Jamie in Armando Iannucci’s satire. Hope has an idealistic, perhaps rather naive heart, and looks back, in artistic terms, to a time when aldermen made regular appearances in plays and novels (see JB Priestley, or Winifred Holtby). “It’s a big, ambitious play,” says Tiffany. “The MPs in The Thick of It are pathetic. Our councillors are all pretty competent.”

Tiffany and Thorne met when the latter was a student at Cambridge; Tiffany, who began his career at the Traverse theatre in Edinburgh, came to run a theatre workshop at the university, they stayed in touch, and it was to him that Thorne sent his first play. They’re about to take their vampire hit, Let the Right One In, to New York, and both are in the middle of fruitful periods: Tiffany won a Tony for best direction for Once, which is still running in London; Thorne’s latest TV series for E4, Glue, has been widely acclaimed, and shooting has just completed on the final instalment of his Bafta-winning collaboration with Shane Meadows, This Is England (’90). What will they do next? Can it possibly be true that they’re to follow their teenage vampires and Labour councillors with a Harry Potter play? All I can tell you is that when this subject comes up, they’re all coy smiles.

Hope runs at the Royal Court, London SW1, 26 November-10 January

Jack Thorne: the hardest-working writer in Britain?


Rachel Cooke

The GuardianTramp

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