As his latest play In Basildon opens at London’s Royal Court, playwright David Eldridge talks to Matt Trueman about how his Essex heritage impacts on his work and why the position of the writer in theatre and TV ought to be upheld
“I’ll be completely honest with you,” says David Eldridge, leaning a little closer. “There are only two things I’ve ever really wanted in life – to be a dad and to have a play at the Royal Court.” His first child, Bertie, arrived in September. Opening tonight (16), In Basildon, his latest play will be his third at the famous Sloane Square theatre.
This is not the sort of soppiness one expects from a man Dominic Dromgoole once dubbed “the writer as bloke.” It’s Friday evening, the end of his week in rehearsals at the Jerwood Space – time, if one shares Dromgoole’s light-hearted hunch, for Eldridge to return to Romford and regale his mates with more tales from Theatreland. “Let’s do ten more minutes, then I need a beer,” he says, as our allotted half-hour runs out. That’s more like it.
His plays, however, often do the opposite – placing Essex life onstage with unflinching fairness. Born in Romford in 1973, Eldridge attended a local independent secondary and, during weekends and holidays, worked in the town’s market – an experience that formed the basis of his 2006 play Market Boy. In Basildon is his fourth Essex-set play, but the first, he feels, to really take the county as its subject. “I’ve not really written a play that dips into some of things that I think Essex is about yet.” His feelings towards it are “ambivalent”.
“On the one hand, it’s a huge part of me,” he explains. “It’s a place I love, it’s where many of my friends and family are from. On the other hand, though, I have questions about some of the values and politics, which are often important – though not hegemonic – in that world.
“I’m the only Guardian reader in the family, if you like.”
Those two minds tussle throughout In Basildon, in which shows a divided family facing an even more divisive will. “If you’ve got no money and life’s hard, then it’s absolutely valid to want that to go your way. But as an outside observer, you think, ‘How can these people lose sight of the things that matter because of money?’.”
Where the play examines political and personal values directly, it does so with balance and empathy, mindful of both pros and cons. Eldridge treats his characters, all bar one Essex-born and bred, with honest respect. Nothing is sugar-coated – no one’s condescended. “On stage and screen, we’re used to seeing the blue collar classes and, in particular, their aspiration being mocked in some way. I really wanted to avoid that.”
To do so, he has used – arguably subverted – the four-act form, originated by Chekhov and more usually associated with bourgeois sitting room stories. Think of Amy’s View by David Hare or, more recently, Tom Wells’ The Kitchen Sink. “The sustained action is all in one room, so you have to write with great care to sustain it truthfully. You can’t cut to a new scene all the time. It’s not the room or scene that’s changing, it’s the characters.”
That’s even more important in the middle of Sloane Square. “We don’t want people that might be better off than these characters sitting in leather seats, feeling superior,” he says. Eldridge speaks admiringly of the middle-class manifesto central to Dominic Cooke’s tenure – “Hugo Boss is across the road. You can’t ignore that and pretend those dynamics don’t exist when programming” – but In Basildon fits (“quite consciously”) into another Royal Court lineage – that of Arnold Wesker, Peter Gill and DH Lawrence. “It’s a major part of the theatre’s history.”
With that in mind, Eldridge has sought to inculpate his audience, turning focus on potential prejudices and snobbery of the Sloane Square audience. “If you come from a background that isn’t traditionally theatregoing, it’s inevitable that you ask questions about what you’re doing when you work at theatres like the Royal Court and the Almeida.”
In Basildon’s only middle class character is an aspiring playwright, who patronisingly hopes to make theatre “that relates to ordinary working people”. It’s the sort of box-ticking instrumentalism Eldridge has spoken out against in the past. Writers, he firmly believes, should be allowed to write without meddling interference. “You have to treat your writers and their plays in as bespoke a way as possible,” he says. In the early 2000s, as an ardent Monsterist, Eldridge campaigned for big casts, big plays and big stages. In 2009, he co-formed the Antelope Group, a semi-formal discussion group for playwrights to share and air.
“By and large, for the last 2,500 years, it’s human beings writing texts for the theatre that has moved the form forwards. I’m very passionate about the place of the writer for performance in our culture. That’s something to be spoken up for and defended.
“It’s important for anyone in society to take responsibility not just for their job, but for the conditions of their work. Writers are no different in that. We have to think about our context, not just our plays or screenplays.”
Artistic, as well as social, context is key. A knowledgeable student of theatre and its history, he talks eloquently about Lawrence, Robert Holman and Franz Xaver Kroetz – all strong influences – and of adaptation as a learning experience. His first was Michael Vinterberg’s film Festen, which transferred to the West End with five Olivier Awards in tow. Three Ibsens – two for the Donmar – followed, and next up, at the Manchester Royal Exchange from April, is Strindberg’s Miss Julie. “I’m not one of those writers with lots of original ideas, but I’ve got a lot more energy for writing,” he says.
Of course, it also helps pay the bills, given Eldridge realised early that he didn’t suit television long-runners. The only job he ever lost – ironically – was EastEnders. However, with the Royal Court and a young son keeping him busy, “the writer as bloke” is unlikely to lose sleep over it.
In Basildon is at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court, London, until March 24