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An actor picking up a script by playwright and actor Stewart Permutt will not be disappointed. For those in the know, he is one of British theatre’s gems whose work combines psychological truth with great humour and empathy for his characters, no matter what their circumstances.
Those who have been in the know for some time include Maureen Lipman and Lesley Joseph. Both appeared in Stewart’s early play, Exclusive Yarns, co-written with Gary Lyons, and which ran at the Palace Theatre in Watford and the Comedy Theatre in London before being adapted for Channel 4. Celia Imrie, his latest leading lady, opens this evening in Unsuspecting Susan at the King’s Head in Islington.
Stewart and I first met in the late 1980s under the auspices of Vivian Pickles whose playreading group, Riverside Writers, used to meet at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. Our association continued when Ron Forfar (Bread) and I resurrected the group at the Polish Centre as Hammersmith Actors & Writers. We had mutual friends and found ourselves laughing at many of the same things.
It was, then, in 1989 that I had the pleasure of working on one or two early drafts of Stewart’s work for rehearsed readings. Although we have bumped into each other several times over the intervening years, I have never known the genesis for his acting and writing. Did one desire precede the other?
‘I wrote in an exercise book from about 11 years old,’ he tells me. ‘And I used to write parodies of famous plays rather than anything original, like The School for Scandal. I’d do my own version because that’s what we did at school.’
But Stewart, appearing in all the school plays, also had ‘this burning desire to act’. His parents were not amused. ‘They felt there’s nothing for you if you don’t make it. It’s not a career, it’s a hobby’. He compromised by studying drama at university but such a burning cannot be easily put aside and he left halfway through to take work as a stage manager.
One of his first jobs as an actor was in pantomime and it was this that inspired his first play which was staged at the Pentameters in Hampstead when he was just twenty-five. If you have more than one string to your bow, it can be difficult being taken seriously in each. The classic response to an actor who writes is often ‘So you’re not acting any more?’
‘I always wanted to act and people were quite discouraging,’ Stewart says. ‘And then the acting sort of took over. I’d say six or seven years ago I was just acting and hardly doing any writing. And now the reverse has happened.’
Does he have a preference? ‘If I had to, say, only do one thing, it would be the writing. But I do enjoy acting. I do enjoy acting very much. I wouldn’t like to feel I’ve ever totally given it up. I’ve got an acting agent. And I do enjoy it but my energies and my efforts go into writing. I don’t look for an acting job. If one falls out of the sky because somebody remembers me, then I’ll take it. But I will look for a writing job very fervently.’
Stewart finds writing tough but ultimately extremely satisfying. ‘Acting is very satisfying as well. It’s a different thing. But I think it helps when you’re a writer if you’ve been an actor or you are an actor or you’ve done some acting because you can ask people to do things which are not ridiculous.’ He cites J B Priestley in The Art of the Dramatist who points out the necessity of understanding the mechanics of staging. ‘You have a scene and you have your leading lady going off and then you’ve got her coming on literally in the next scene in a huge costume change. And that’s just not possible. A non-theatrical person will do scenes that are just ridiculous.’
Stewart also teaches writing for the Westminster Education Authority. ‘It’s not officially a playwriting class but they all seem interested in it. And some of them seem to have a natural ability for writing plays because they go to the theatre a lot. I don’t go as much as I used to because I’ve got lazy. But I think going to the theatre a lot teaches you an enormous amount. They go and see things and discuss the mechanics of it. That’s important.’
Unsuspecting Susan has its origins in Stewart’s earlier play Singular People, a series of monologues in which four characters share with us the minutiae of their everyday lives, lives which unfold to reveal the sadnesses underpinning their existence. Thoroughly rooted in reality, the result is an engrossing picture of how we deal with the slings and arrows — the bravery required, the deceits we use to delude ourselves until acceptance of the inevitable. It is Stewart’s ability to infuse his writing with a humour that illuminates the mundane and enables us to laugh in the face of tragedy that is his greatest strength.
Harold Sanditen, producer of Unsuspecting Susan, and director Lisa Forrell, both asked him to develop the character of Susan from Singular People into a full-length monologue. In the latter, Susan’s son is a serial killer; the crime at the heart of Unsuspecting Susan is different but equally horrific. How does she justify it? Was it her fault? ‘I just think it’s interesting to see the mother, not the criminal,’ says Stewart. ‘How does the mother cope with the fact that her son has done something absolutely beyond belief?’
The action takes place in a small village in Hampshire where everyone knows everyone else. Susan Chester is rehearsing a production of The Killing of Sister George but all is not well in the woodshed. Her best friend Elaine’s husband has run off with the ‘trollop’ from the betting shop in Basingstoke while Elaine has gone in search of nirvana with a Buddhist in Bayswater. Busy with rehearsals, Susan has not had a moment to consider these events. Then her son commits a heinous crime.
‘It’s very, very Home Counties,’ says Stewart. ‘And it sort of unravels and you think you’re in some sort of gentle Homeshires comedy of observation. And then it changes halfway through when her son commits an absolutely horrific crime.’
Did he have Celia Imrie in mind for the part? ‘We were thinking of various different actresses, Celia being one of them. And at the time, when I asked Celia, she felt that she didn’t want to do a one-woman show. That was her original feeling about it. And then Dan Crawford [Artistic Director of the King’s Head] said, “I’m going to ask Celia again because I think she’s very right for it.” And then she read it and said, “Yes, I definitely want to do it.” Also, when I asked her earlier, she was not free, either. We’re very old friends and we’ve worked together and things like that.’
The use of monologues has, in the past, had some critics comparing Stewart unfavourably to Alan Bennett. Stewart says: ‘It’s not very fashionable at the moment and I think that the reason is that people felt I was copying Alan Bennett because of the monologue form. I think he’s brilliant, Alan Bennett, but I’m not trying to copy him. I’m probably influenced by him but that’s not the same thing, you see.’
Stewart also believes that the comedy in his work can prompt certain people to think ‘that you’re taking something slightly which is very, very serious. And they may misconstrue that’. This is a great shame as engendering laughter can point up the keenest nuance. ‘I think so,’ says Stewart. Who was it who said that farce is merely tragedy speeded up?
Although I have long felt that Stewart’s plays should get a much wider audience, the intimacy of the writing would only work, I suspect, in the smaller theatre. Perhaps a successful King’s Head run of Unsuspecting Susan allied to the pull of Celia Imrie — a sublime actress — will persuade producers to bring it into the West End. ‘One has to keep on going and think, I’m not that successful but at least I’m getting things on. I had a play on television last year [The Lime Green Bag]. And things are getting on but it’s not big time.’
Again it comes down to the Alan Bennett comparison. ‘I think that quite a lot with monologues, people [producers] think “Ooh, we’ve had enough of those, we’ve had Alan Bennett”. And there’s been a lot of one-person shows so I’m very keen to get this play I wrote for Soho on. It’s about four women who meet every week at the cinema. We did a reading of it and they were all very keen. And I don’t know what’s happening there.’
Soho Theatre advised him to farm it out to other producers. ‘I don’t know what it is at the moment. We’ve sent it out to some commercial managements who send nice notes saying “we can’t afford to do anything at the moment’ — there’s always that. But I think eventually we will do that one and that gets away from the monologue which I need to do, and then they won’t be able to criticise me for that!’
Female characters predominate in his work and are particularly memorable. ‘I think women are more interesting than men for the simple reason they reveal their emotions, even in a very, very subdued way. There’s a sort of humour, which is sometimes subconscious that women have that men don’t seem to have, and also women’s interests are wider. They’re about getting on with life and bringing up children and gossip — essential to a writer because gossip formulates a play. Men as a whole don’t gossip, as such. Or talk about other people in the way women do. And that is a fund of information. People, what they say about other people reveals so much about them. And women tend to do that far more than men, in my experience.’ Men, he continues, tend to talk more about ‘things that really bore like sport! I’m not saying that all men are like that — of course they’re not, they’re fascinating.’ But he has no interest in writing about successful, go-getting people and says simply, ‘I find them boring.’
Sarah Vernon © 2003
Originally published on R&V 12-05-03
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