Photography by Jemima Chen
You may know him as the writer of Skins, Shameless, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, His Dark Materials, Wonder (gosh he’s really done a lot hasn’t he) but Jack Thorne also made another huge contribution to theatre in the form of his ‘political play without the politics’ 2nd May 1997. Why should we care about it? Well, it’s being performed in The Burton Taylor Theatre from this Tuesday. So, in anticipation of its grand opening (or as grand as a sold out 50-seat theatre can ever be), I sat down with directors James Newbery and Katie Kirkpatrick to get the low down on what exactly it means to put on a play Thorne wrote partly to make sense of his infatuation with Tony Blair (it’s true, it says so in the introduction!).
Now, this isn’t Newbery and Kirkpatrick’s first foray into the world of theatre. Having been housemates all through university, they were ‘literally locked together’ during the corona-years. Now, while most of us were wallowing in Deliveroo and Netflix they were writing and directing Teddy Hall’s Cuppers entry. Inventively named ‘Killing Steve’, it told the story of 3 housemates who – driven crazy by isolation – plot increasingly inventive ways to murder their 4th housemate -apparently, all the characters were drawn from personal experience (let’s just hope nobody worked out who was who). However, 2nd May 1997 marks their first proper proper directing job. It’s safe to say their excitement was palpable.
Newbery told me that what really struck them about Thorne’s (a)political drama was how it read like a ‘script that puts characters first’. Their theatre company is called ‘Love Song’ productions, which – if you weren’t an absolute emotionless cynic like me – seems sweet. He liked how 2nd May 1997 approached romance in a way which was unexpected, unconventional, new, virile. Kirkpatrick then chipped in, explaining how the structure of the play perfectly lent itself to exploring all varieties of intimacy, from the casual kisses of a love-saturated aging couple, to the passion of a one-night stand, to the naïve innocence of schoolboys in love. Technically written as a series of short plays, 2nd May 1997 explores 3 contrasting relationships each aligned with a different political party and each from a vastly different social background. ‘Eclectic’ was the word Newbery used to describe it and both directors were excited by how they might represent such contrasting lives on stage.
Although staging believable intimacy does inevitably come with its challenges, especially with a play where all action takes place exclusively within the bedroom. Newbery and Kirkpatrick seem to have dealt with this well, appointing an intimacy co-ordinator, running workshops, having a welfare officer. However, neither could have foreseen an unfortunate incident during rehearsals where a member of college catering staff walked in during a staged sex scene and began eating their supper. Though, I guess this means the actors in question will be prepared for anything funny going on in the audience (or for another The Oxford Blue ice-cream saga, there’ll probably be one!).
While we are on the topic of audience, Newbery wanted you to look out for the innovative strides they have made in staging. He really was quite hyped about it, so please look out! Making The Burton Taylor look like anything but a dark shed can be a challenge (I love the theatre, but it really isn’t the prettiest) and Newbery was proud that they have achieved this and made a political statement in the process. So yes, look out for their use of colour in each of the scenes, how it changes in relation to the political aligning of each couple. Everything else is a closely guarded secret (got to build suspense somehow) but I’m guessing red, yellow and blue may be involved. I was also assured there would be some Spice Girls just to reassure us that we are watching a play set in the 90s. While minorly obvious, this injection of ‘nostalgia’ is probably good on balance especially considering how silly non-politically-minded-me who thought Tony Blair was prime minister in the mid 00s needs the context!
Beyond sound and staging we have the cast. All taken from different year groups, genders, and subject backgrounds I was assured that they were as eclectic as the play itself. Kirkpatrick spoke like a proud mummy talking about how they all became firm friends over the rehearsal process (I mean good job considering the highly sexual nature of the play, or the directors would have been in for an awkward 7 weeks). She also stressed how they made a conscious effort not to cast those people who are in ‘every single play in Oxford’ to make the play a learning experience that feels fresh, exciting, and new.
So, what’s next for these budding directors? Well, galvanised by their sheer (blind) faith in the success of 2nd May 1997, they have already made bids to stage two more plays in The Burton Taylor in Hilary. However, these will be produced, directed, performed, and written by Oxford students, which is just great given so much student drama is just the staging of the plays available in Samuel French printed editions. They are also on a crusade to bring ‘dramaturgy’ back to Oxford, being keen to run script development seminars and forums to help students discover exactly how they might go on putting a play. Hopefully, they argue, this will alleviate the ‘oh my god what am I doing’ sensation Kirkpatrick felt when she first entered the rehearsal room for 2nd May 1997.
So, if you are a fan of sex or Tony Blair (or both, like Jack Thorne (I won’t judge, he seems to have done pretty alright with his life), it looks like The Burton Taylor in 7th week is the place for you.