Playwright is Willing… and able

Fed up with a dearth of parts for mature actors, Victoria Willing decided to write her own play. Dan Carrier talked to her

Thursday, 7th April — By Dan Carrier

Victoria Willing credit Dan Tsantilis

Victoria Willing. Photo: Dan Tsantilis

WHEN Gloria undercooks a Christmas turkey, her festive food failure results in the death of her mother. Overcome and unable to know how to react, she heads up into the attic of her home and refuses to come down.

This is the starting point for a new play by Camden-based playwright Victoria Willing.

Called Sad and starting this week at the Omnibus Theatre in Clapham Common, the four-hander comedy marks another work Vicky has created that bucks the industry-wide practice of not having older women in leading roles.

“The leads are a couple in their late 50s who have not been together for very long,” says Vicky. “They are still quite new to each other. When Gloria cooks a turkey and kills her mother, she runs upstairs to the attic, locks herself in and won’t come out. It becomes her safe space, where she can reinvent herself and who she would like to be.”

Vicky, who took up writing in her 40s, works as an actor – “I still do self tapes each week, still work” – but has found a new approach to the performing arts through writing.

After a career acting, in 2007, she studied an MA at Central St Martin’s in creative writing. Her work has been critically acclaimed.

“I wanted to start writing, partly as I was not really satisfied with the work I was doing, the roles available, as an actor,” she says. “I might not have written anything if it were otherwise.”

And having been at both ends of a script helps write drama “enormously”, she adds.

“It feels like a natural progression from acting to writing dialogue. You are in tune with how people speak. You understand how to intone it and get the desired result. Actors are good at manipulation and writers do this too. It is an organic progression.”

And writing from your experience means strong leads for older people, she says.

“Every middle-aged woman I write, I think I would love to get my teeth into that role,” she says. “I wanted to write something about a woman who is vibrant, alive, needy, sexual, loving, angry – all these things we do not see enough of in the portrayal of women in theatre.

“I am fed up with post-menopausal women being completely sidelined in everything. It was my response to it and it all came flooding out. I wanted to write a play about someone my age, a role for someone my age, which isn’t being ‘Great Aunt Dotty’, ‘Funny Granny’ or ‘Retiring Shopkeeper’. It is hard to find main parts for women, even if they are famous, once they are past 60.”

Vicky’s influences range from Samuel Beckett to Alan Ayckbourn – “he is unfashionable but I enjoy his plays immensely” – Joe Orton, Harold Pinter and Simon Stephens, who wrote The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night Time, which Vicky performed in for a year.

Less well known but equally interesting is the work of Ella Hickson.

“I saw a play she wrote at the Almeida called The Writer and it blew my mind,” she recalls. “It has been a huge influence on this play. She is a big deal for me – I would love to see more of her work. There is the great Caryl Churchill, but otherwise I have name-checked male writers. This has yet to change – there are not many female playwrights being commissioned.”

For Sad, she collaborated closely with director Marie McCarthy.

“I have performed in pieces I have written, but here I wanted to step away and observe my own work. It is the first time I have done this and it is hard,” she admits.

Sad, while having some serious undertones, will make you laugh, she says.

“I only write comedy,” adds Vicky. “I hear the characters talking as I write, and I can’t help myself from thinking: oh, it would funny if they said that. I love nothing more than hearing people laugh in the theatre.”

Vicky’s mother is the celebrated artist Paula Rego, and she has been influenced by being surrounded by her mother’s visual art, which can inform her of how she sees her writing staged.

“Mum’s influence does come through,” she says. “My work considers a woman’s place in the world, the power structures that work around women, dominance and subservience. So does my mother’s.

“And her influence comes through in other ways – for example, Gloria in Sad sleeps in a dog basket in the attic. My mother had done a series of paintings called Dog Women, of people sleeping in canine positions. I didn’t know this when I wrote the play.”

As well as noting a gender imbalance in theatre writing, a return to the stage post-pandemic safety measures has highlighted again how our nation’s artistic life has been relentlessly attacked by the Conservative government.

“Theatre is in a bad place right now,” she said. “Theatres have been completely stripped of funding. The arts have taken a complete bashing. There is a complete disdain for the arts by the Conservative Party. They have some kind of idea that going into the arts is a ticket to Easy Street, for lazy types. They don’t appear to be able to understand that the arts create a huge amount of wealth, employs so many, and brings enormous joy. It is a travesty that it’s seen with contempt by the present culture secretary.”

She added that the destruction of arts education in the curriculum bodes ill for the future.

“There are enormous benefits that are ignored,” she adds. “Arts teaches you about the world around you, gives you confidence, helps you communicate, teaches empathy and much more. Our country has a great history of creativity and artistic works.

“When you have culture wars discussing what a nation stands for and means, yet they launch attack after attack on our shared national cultural landscape, you have to question their priorities or understanding of the issues.”

Sad runs until April 30 at the Omnibus Theatre, 1 Clapham Common North, SW4 0QW. 020 7598 4699,

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