On the eve of his worldwide hit Road opening in America in the summer of 1998, Jim Cartwright told the New York Times that he wouldn’t mind making ‘a big move’ one day – “to a little village in Italy. Or to Tibet, to write plays and search for the meaning of life”. Nearly 30 years later, he is well travelled, certainly, as are his plays. And while Lancashire remains home, he has at least addressed part of the notion with his new play, The Ancient Secret of Youth and the Five Tibetans.
Written for the Octagon Theatre, Bolton, the story explores what happens when three friends, now in their late 50s, stumble upon a second-hand book which outlines a discovery by Tibetan priests who promise that the rituals they recommend will bring renewed health and vigour.
“People say, ‘oh, I would love to be young again but know what I know now’; I started with that question,” explains Cartwright, whose work has been translated into 35 languages and includes box office favourite The Rise and Fall of Little Voice.
“I was just thinking about age and youth, and wondering if there was a secret of rejuvenation. If there is, is it the wisest choice to take?”
Cartwright’s new play was written in the autumn of last year and born out of a series of conversations with Octagon’s artistic director David Thacker. “We had been talking about doing something together for some time. I told him the idea and he really liked it, and then of course I had to do it.”
Plays announce themselves in Cartwright’s head in different ways – sometimes from a single image – although he tends not to dwell too much on their origin. His early work, funny and poetic and noted for its representation of the English north, especially the working class, was bashed out quickly on a portable typewriter, although lately he will “let things marinate a bit and let them gather and emerge”.
He’s excited to be working with Thacker, who directs The Ancient Secret, and enthuses that regional theatre can attract talent of this calibre.
An experienced director in his own right, Cartwright had some input into the casting but recognises it’s “important to leave directors and actors to it – back off and let them have some air. But I will do back-seat driving if they need it”.
“The cast are fantastic. Denise Welch is a really good actress, a force of nature. She played Mari in Little Voice at the Royal Exchange about 10 years ago. It’s a great cast and I am really excited by it coming together in Bolton with a great director.”
Cartwright is equally passionate about another recent project, the acting studio he has started near his home in Chorley with the aim of getting more working-class people into the arts.
“I started it for local people, just put it out gently,” he says, adding that recent publicity about a lack of working-class actors was something we “need to think about”.
Classes are on a Sunday and charges are kept to a minimum just to cover costs. The work concentrates on the power of the imagination and he loves every minute, he says. “In my own little way, it’s about giving people a chance.”
Cartwright’s own chance as an actor began in the early 1980s, helping to start his own company after drama school.
Acme Acting offered Londoners a potted classic of a film like Psycho in their own homes. “Acting in people’s houses – that’s what we did,” he says. “We used to go in and take over the whole house; brush our teeth, have a bath or whatever. The only rule was that you had to stay in character.
“People paid us to do this,” he says, enjoying the memory. “We used to share the money under the lamp post outside (about £30) – it was an amazing experience.”
The idea of an audience following the performers must have taken root because his first play Road (1986) would employ the promenade style in its debut production at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs. Now considered a modern classic and described at the time by The Observer as “the most significant and original new English play” for years, Road was initially just “scraps of things” that Cartwright showed to his friends. One such friend was Neil Pearson, the actor, who had contacts in Sloane Square.
Cartwright takes up the story. “The next thing I knew, I got a call from Antonia Bird at the Royal Court. They were treating me like I was the new Angry Young Man. We’d like to commission you, they said, and I didn’t even know what that meant. They gave me a couple of hundred quid which was a big mistake as I buggered off up north and they never saw me.”
When the Royal Court did eventually enquire about that play they had paid for, Cartwright got a grip on things and finished it. Its impact was beyond his wildest dreams. “It was a fabulous feeling. I was really poor at the time with a wife and a young kid. I remember one particular moment, getting out of a cab outside the Royal Court, looking up and nearly falling backwards in doing so as I saw my name in lights. I thought wow. Me. Off a council estate. To this. The money started coming in and it was like winning the pools.”
Rather than doing a runner this time around, Cartwright delivered with Bed (1989) for the National Theatre and, in the same year, Two, which premiered in Bolton.
While both were acclaimed, Cartwright’s career reached new heights with The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, a 1992 vehicle for Jane Horrocks first performed at the National before a West End transfer. More realistic than the author’s earlier plays and offering the role of a lifetime in LV, the girl who finds herself thanks to an ability to mimic superstar singers like Bassey and Garland, the play opened on Broadway in 1995 and was adapted for the big screen three years later.
Cartwright wriggles when asked which of his plays is his favourite, though will admit that “you have a lot of feelings for your first play”.
For the moment he is busy, with a raft of projects under way. They include commissions from the Young Vic in London and the Royal Exchange in Manchester, a one-man play to open at Edinburgh this summer and a feature film, Cornered, in which Cartwright himself is due to direct a cast including Jim Broadbent, Maxine Peake, Sean Bean and Timothy Spall.
Writing from an armchair at home, on the train, or from a caravan in his field when “the wife kicks me out” for the day, Cartwright is happiest juggling more than one project. “I like it. I can flit from one to the other, even on the same day.”
His work is performed somewhere in the world “pretty much continuously which is fantastic for me. Some were written a while ago but are still performed. Sometimes you get a 16-year-old come up to you and say they’ve studied it at school and loved it. What better music to the ears of a writer?”
The Ancient Secret of Youth and the Five Tibetans is at the Octagon Theatre, Bolton, until May 23; The Rise and Fall of Little Voice is at Birmingham Repertory Theatre from May 15-30