Since penning hit play Beautiful Thing in the 1990s, Jonathan Harvey has combined theatre work with TV, writing some of Coronation Street’s most gripping storylines. As his latest show opens in Liverpool, he tells Catherine Jones about finding his voice, working with the Pet Shop Boys and adapting Hollywood movie My Best Friend’s Wedding for the stage
Playwright Jonathan Harvey returns to the Liverpool Everyman next month – more than two decades since his last commission at the Hope Street theatre.
And the work, Our Lady of Blundellsands, has itself been a long time in gestation, first given a rehearsed reading in 2016 and then put on hold while the Everyman embarked on its rep seasons.
The story revolves around sisters Sylvie and Garnet and was inspired at least in part by Harvey’s own grandmother and great aunt who shared a high-rise flat together.
The dynamic of two elderly sisters living a co-dependent existence intrigued him. But it’s the hiatus in the play’s journey to the stage that has helped him find the heart of his tale.
“In the original form, I didn’t really know why these two women were recluses. I just thought, oh well we’ll have some fun with that in rehearsals,” he says. “I loved going back to it, it was a treat, and I just thought, well I’ll work it all out. As a result, of everything I’ve done for theatre it’s probably the most fine-tuned I’ve written as we go into rehearsal.”
Our Lady of Blundellsands is Harvey’s 25th stage play. But growing up in Liverpool in the 1970s and 1980s, his first love was acting. He spent his formative years with Merseyside Youth Drama run by Mai Bradbury who, if a young actor impressed her, would bestow the accolade that they were “almost as good as our Kimmie”.
Harvey recalls: “Kimmie was this character who’d moved to Canada, so none of us knew her. But she was quite magical.” Years later, he discovered Kimmie was Bradbury’s niece Kim Cattrall.
What was your first theatrical job?
Joseph and the Amazing Techincolor Dreamcoat, Neptune Theatre Liverpool
What was your first non-theatrical job?
Shelf stacker, Tesco’s Belle Vale Shopping Centre, Liverpool
What is your next job?
I’m developing some nice ideas for TV, on my own and with the writer Jan McVerry
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
If you are unhappy and can afford to, walk off the job.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
Very early on in my career I was writer in residence at the National Theatre Studio where I learned a lot from John Burgess who worked there. I’d never studied literature or plays, and he chucked classic plays at me and inspired me to learn. He also helped me define my voice and work out what I wanted to write about.
If you hadn’t been a writer what would you have done?
Casting director. I love casting.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I have to sit on the aisle as near to the exit as possible.
When teenage acne left him too self-conscious to perform, Harvey became an avid theatregoer instead. And it was a season of new plays by Liverpool writers – among them Heidi Thomas and Jim Hitchmough – in the Playhouse Studio that inspired the 17-year-old to try writing for the stage.
“It was local writers, and the people in them had Liverpool accents,” he says. “It wasn’t people in drawing rooms talking about croquet. It was much more relevant, and life-changing for me, really.”
Harvey’s first attempt, The Cherry Blossom Tree, won him the £1,000 top prize in a young writer’s competition and was staged in the same studio space where his epiphany had taken place a year before.
‘I knew I was being really honest in Beautiful Thing – and I knew there was a reason for writing it’
His career then blossomed, and despite his early works garnering a clutch of awards, he still considers Beautiful Thing, his 1993 tender young gay love story, which was subsequently adapted for Channel 4, as a key point in his career.
Harvey was working as a special-needs teacher in London and penned the play during a six-week summer holiday: two weeks writing it longhand in a notebook, two typing up the script and the last two “touting it around to get an agent”.
While Harvey says he doesn’t write autobiographical pieces, life experience does have a bearing on choices he makes as a writer. He says Beautiful Thing was heavily influenced by his own coming out story.
Although he says he didn’t know it would be special initially, he says: “I knew I was being really honest in it, and I knew there was a reason for writing it. I was hopeful for it.”
A prolific career has also encompassed television, along with six novels in seven years. However, novel and playwriting have proved incompatible because, he explains, they use the same specific part of his brain.
Harvey continues to juggle stage and screen writing – he recently created an episode for Heidi Thomas’ Call the Midwife and is a core member of the Coronation Street writing team.
The economic stability of television allows him to pick and choose theatre projects, and practically, the two remain very different beasts.
‘When you’re writing a play, unless you’re adapting a book or doing a musical, it’s just you and a black box’
With television, he says, while creativity can be found in adapting your style to a particular show, the story is usually fine-tuned and signed off in advance which makes the writing more about “colouring in”.
“Whereas when you’re writing a play, unless you’re adapting a book or doing a musical, it’s just you and a black box – and a little puppet theatre you’ve got to populate. It’s a bit more like sculpting. You’re chiselling away at a block of wood and eventually a beautiful shape will form.”
After I mention musicals, Harvey reveals he had a “bruising experience” on his first commercial outing: 2001’s Closer to Heaven, which he wrote with the Pet Shop Boys.
The show received some harsh reviews and Harvey admits that while he loves the collaborative nature of musicals, he felt alienated by the production process – exemplified by an email he sent a producer saying he felt ignored, to which he received a response eight weeks later.
He returned to the genre with Dusty, and has two current musical projects. While his first encounter with commercial musicals was fraught, it certainly didn’t end his working relationship with the Pet Shop Boys. He returned to working with them on Musik, a one-woman follow up to Closer to Heaven in which Frances Barber reprises her character Billie Trix.
“I loved working with the Pet Shop Boys, they were so kind to me. I’ve always had a scream with them, it was more the other sides of the process I didn’t like,” he says.
Later this year, the stage version of Hollywood hit My Best Friend’s Wedding will open. It is the first time Harvey has co-written a show, working alongside the film’s screenwriter Ronald Bass and incorporating the hits of Burt Bacharach and Hal David into to the plot.
Harvey laughs: “If you’re going to co-write with someone, co-write with someone who’s won an Oscar. It’s brilliant – I can write a really rubbish scene, send it to him and it will come back polished. With really funny jokes.”
Back in Liverpool, Our Lady of Blundellsands reunites him not just with Liverpool Everyman artistic director Gemma Bodinetz, who directed both Closer to Heaven and the Hillsborough drama Guiding Star – the 1998 co-production between the Everyman and the National – but also with Nick Bagnall, who acted in his play Hushabye Mountain.
Harvey, who moved back to the city from London four years ago, has been in and out of rehearsals while giving director Bagnall and the cast space to find their own voice within the story.
“I’m still involved,” he says, “but you then have to let it go because once the curtain goes up on press night there’s absolutely nothing you can do to affect what’s happening on stage. You just have to hope for the best.”
Born: 1968, Liverpool
Training: BSc in psychology and education, Hull University
• Beautiful Thing, Bush Theatre; Donmar Warehouse; Duke of York’s (1993)
• Guiding Star, National Theatre; Liverpool Everyman (1998)
• Canary, Liverpool Playhouse; Hampstead Theatre (2010)
• Gimme Gimme Gimme, BBC (1998-2001)
• Beautiful People, BBC (2008)
• George Devine Award (1993)
• Evening Standard most promising playwright award (1994)
• John Whiting Award for Beautiful Thing (1994)
• Manchester Evening News Theatre awards for Rupert Street Lonely Hearts Club (1995) and Corrie! (2010)
• Writers’ Guild Award (2019)
• British Soap awards for best scene and best episode for Coronation Street
Agent: Michael McCoy at Independent
Our Lady of Blundellsands runs at Liverpool Everyman from March 6 to 28, with press night on March 10