Jack Thorne: ‘I don’t know if I wrote the script for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child or the cast did’
Jack Thorne is just 38 years old, but he’s already hurtling towards the top ranks of Britain’s most successful and prolific contemporary playwrights and television writers. That’s in no small measure thanks to his collaboration with JK Rowling and director John Tiffany on the West End stage premiere of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. That show, which opened last year, instantly became the biggest hit in Theatreland. It begins an inevitable worldwide roll-out in New York next year. Meanwhile, his television work on The Fades, This Is England and Don’t Take My Baby has also won a series of BAFTAs.
In the theatre, he has had plays produced at the Bush, Royal Court and National Theatre, with one – his adaptation of the film Let the Right One In – originally for the National Theatre of Scotland, subsequently transferring to the West End and to Brooklyn’s St Ann’s Warehouse. Now, he has written both a new musical, Junkyard (for Headlong's Jeremy Herrin who directs with music by Oscar-winning composer Stephen Warbeck), which opens tonight (March 2) at Bristol Old Vic before transferring to Theatr Clwyd in Mold and Kingston’s Rose Theatre, and a new version of Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck that Star Wars actor John Boyega will star in at London’s Old Vic Theatre in May.
Meeting in a West End coffee shop, a beanie worn atop his tall head as he arrives, he’s extremely affable company. But it soon becomes apparent that he finds it difficult sometimes to pin down his thoughts in spoken words; he quite often retreats behind affirmations of “yeah yeah” or even, at one point: “Yes, yes – no, yeah, no.”
This is a writer who probably prefers to sit in front of a computer than a microphone. But if articulating his thoughts isn’t easy, his journey towards finding himself as a writer hasn’t been particularly easy, either. He’s not sure he’s got there yet, even now. He says of his plans: “I am trying to write a play that is big and I feel represents me – that’s my big ambition. If I manage to do that in the next five years, I’ll be happy. I feel like I’ve worked it out a bit in telly, but I’ve not quite worked it out in theatre yet.”
He casts a sideways glance at some of his contemporaries to see what they’re up to. “I’m part of a band, like John Donnelly, Duncan Macmillan, Lucy Prebble, Lucy Kirkwood, Mike Bartlett and Laura Wade, and it’s so interesting to see the different ways people find themselves. Duncan’s journey in particular; he didn’t quite break through, he held back from himself, then he wrote Lungs and everything grew from that. He’s always been focused on his voice. There are ways that you think you should write like other people, but Duncan never did that.”
Finding his own voice for him has partly been about channelling those of others. He craves and values collaboration with others. “I’m not someone who wants complete ownership. I like sharing and working with other people. In telly, my most fruitful relationship is with Shane Meadows, where it becomes really difficult to define who wrote anything. By the time it is on the screen, I couldn’t tell you who wrote what. We write the scripts and then the actors work on them, they change things on the day and it becomes another thing.”
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was always planned as a collaboration: he shares the writing credits with JK Rowling and John Tiffany.
“I still don’t quite know how it came together. We did a lot of talking and then developed it from there. I did most of the physical writing, but everyone fed back into it. Once we were happy with the story, I took it on and wrote the dialogue. So it all happened and then we had to make it work. So, with Ron’s lines, for example, did I write them or did Paul Thornley? He’s had a huge impact on how the show worked – he’s so funny and brilliant that I was inspired by him, and was trying to write lines that did justice to his performance.”
He goes on to point out: “We did so many workshops, so there are a lot of people whose voices played a huge role in how the show turned out. All the way through, John [Tiffany] was casting and bringing in people who would challenge the script, so we got the best script we possibly could.”
Tiffany has played a long and critical role in Thorne’s career. “I’ve known him since I was 20, when he was working at Paines Plough and he directed a reading of the first thing that ever happened on stage for me outside university. He then got me involved in other projects. But then he went off to Scotland [with the National Theatre of Scotland], so the likes of me and Dennis Kelly were left saying: ‘Who do we talk to now?’ ”
That led to him approaching the Bush Theatre in west London, then run by Mike Bradwell, which produced his first two full-length plays. “I love the Bush,” he says today, “and it’s where I last wrote one of the short plays for Where’s My Seat?, when we moved to the new theatre.” He hears what he’s just said and tells me: “You see, I still refer to it as we.”
Another favourite theatre has long been Bristol Old Vic: “It’s the theatre I went to growing up. We didn’t go a lot, but I remember it really meaning something. My dad, who was a town planner for the local council, wrote a little bit now and again, and he had a reading on there in the 1970s. So to now have a play about my dad on at that theatre feels very special.”
Thorne is referring to Junkyard, a new musical inspired by his own father’s contribution to building a junk playground at Bristol’s Lockleaze school. As he recalled in a recent feature for the Guardian: “We used to visit it regularly, particularly on fireworks’ night, when we’d sit on flimsy, flammable structures while playing with fire, or go off eating hot dogs. I didn’t really see the point of it. I always saw him as a serious man and a playground just seemed so silly. But the more I investigated, the more appealing the slightly pirate world of these adventure playgrounds seemed.”
He’s now honouring this unique contribution to community life with this play. It’s clear that is a very personal project, and Thorne adds: “It’s also a mad project. We’re taking a lot of risks, and that’s what makes it very exciting. Jeremy [Herrin, the show’s director] said at the start of the second week of rehearsals: ‘This is genuinely unusual.’ ”
And theatre, of course, offers a sometimes anarchic playground to portray it in all its complexity. “We’ve got an actual playground on the stage. If this was TV, the camera would be roving around. With the theatre, the director is to some extent still in control of where the audience’s eyes go, but there’s a lot more chaos, too. There are sometimes about 15 things going on onstage at any one time, and that’s quite deliberate.”
Q&A: Jack Thorne
What was your first non-theatre job? I was a party entertainer at McDonalds, running parties every Sunday.
What was your first professional theatre job? It was a script I’d written for the National Youth Theatre that the Bush Theate in London commissioned a second draft of and then produced there, called When You Cure Me.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? That it’s not a race.
Who or what was your biggest influence? A mixture of Chekhov’s plays – Three Sisters is probably my favourite, I can read that play every day and find something new in it each time – and things that were shown on TV around 6pm, like Press Gang, Party of Five and Dawson’s Creek, that I was obsessed by.
If you hadn’t been a writer, what would you have been? Something in politics – probably for a local council.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I have a pair of lucky socks I wear for first nights that my wife bought for me.
Taking it to Bristol means not only taking it home, but also to a theatre that has increasingly pushed the boat out on new musicals, such as Neil Hannon’s Swallows and Amazons, which originated there before transferring to the West End, and the recent The Grinning Man. “I used to live in Croydon when Tom [Morris, artistic director of Bristol Old Vic] was running Battersea Arts Centre, and I had a mate who worked there, so I spent a lot of time watching his work and seeing what he was interested in. He is a genuine voice in British theatre and is interested in very different things to anyone else.”
That search for quirky subjects has also informed much of Thorne’s own writing work, which started when he was an undergraduate reading politics at Pembroke College, Cambridge.
“I wrote my first play because I wanted to try directing something and I couldn’t afford the rights – it was an adaptation of a book called The Wave by Morton Rhue.” He’d also dabbled with acting as a student – “I’d been with the National Youth Theatre and I did some student plays where I was generally a foot or two taller than anyone on the stage and looked a bit silly.”
‘There’s nothing like theatre’
But he found writing, or writing found him, and it’s just as well, he thinks: “I can’t do anything other than writing. I’m not very able, generally. if I’d not been a writer, I would probably be a very unsuccessful political adviser to someone, or have worked for a council.”
He’s clearly not the most personally confident of people. He currently lives in Islington in London with his comedy agent wife Rachel and their newborn son, but says: “We’re here for a bit but maybe not forever. We’ve only lived in London for four years; before we were in Luton, where my play Bunny is set.”
That play is coincidentally being revived for a run at Kennington’s White Bear Theatre pub this month, about which he says: “It’s really wicked – it’s really nice. It feels like a special thing when someone says they like your old play.”
He isn’t, he feels, a “natural Londoner”, going on to say: “I think London is a bit sad and I find it a bit overwhelming. There’s a lot of quite unhappy people and it’s very goal-driven. Luton is a place that got voted the number one shit town in the country, but there’s a real sense of community there. In London, that Tube life thing of avoiding people’s eyes and staring has infected the city for me.”
But it’s a place in which Thorne is currently riding high, not just as the co-writer of the West End’s biggest play but also as adaptor of Woyzeck at the Old Vic, a famously impossible play. “Yes, yes, but it’s a beautiful one, too – no, yeah, no. It’s going to be fun to do.”
Jack Thorne’s top tips for an aspiring writer
• The biggest one is find a reader – don’t just turn into a machine sending out scripts to people, but find friends or a new writing group that is going to find you a better writer. Laura Wade was that person for me – we met on the Royal Court Young Writers’ Programme and exchanged scripts for a very long time. I wouldn’t have worked out how to do it without her.
• Don’t be competitive – it’s not a zero-sum game; you should be friends with writers.
• Read a lot – work out what things look like on the page, and what you want your things to look like. And go and see as much as you can, too.
It’s quite different, of course, to the populist theatremaking of Harry Potter. And he recalls something that Tiffany said to him about 10 years ago: “He said that the phrase he hates more than any other is when people say: ‘I should go to the theatre more.’ It implies that theatre is an obligation and that has always stuck with me. But as theatremakers we should be competing with the PlayStation. That doesn’t mean we make Harry Potter all the time; I think that The Glass Menagerie competes with PlayStation as well, if we can get people along to see it. I took my sister to see it the other night in the West End, and she doesn’t see much theatre but she was mesmerised by it – because it is mesmerising.”
That’s true of Thorne’s version of Harry Potter, too – and of such television work as This Is England. Last year he wrote a Channel 4 TV series called National Treasure about a fictional popular entertainer accused of historic sex crimes. He says of it: “It’s the same as writing plays in lots of ways. It had three or four 10-minute scenes in it that were absolutely informed by the theatre – I’d worked out how to let my theatre brain bleed through, and it felt like the moment that I learned to write TV.”
But he still craves the unique buzz of the theatre above all: “As much as I like telly, there’s nothing quite like the nights when something moves me in the theatre. I’m still trying to get over The Glass Menagerie.”
CV: Jack Thorne
Born: 1978, Bristol
Training: University of Cambridge
Landmark productions: When You Cure Me, Bush Theatre, London (2005), Stacy, Arcola Theatre, London; Trafalgar Studios, London, (2007), 2nd May 1997, Bush Theatre (2009), Bunny, Underbelly, Edinburgh; tour (2010), Greenland, Lyttelton, National Theatre (2011), The Physicists, Donmar Warehouse, London (2012), Let the Right One In, Dundee; Royal Court Theatre, London; Apollo Theatre, London (2013-14), Hope, Royal Court (2014), The Solid Life of Sugar Water, Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh (2015); National Theatre (2016), Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Palace Theatre, London (2016)
Awards: Best British newcomer at the London Film Festival (2009), Fringe First for Bunny at Edinburgh Fringe (2010), Royal Television Society award for best writer (drama) with Shane Meadows for This Is England (2011), BAFTA for best drama series for The Fades (2012), BAFTA for best drama serial for This Is England 88 (2012), BAFTA for best single drama for Don’t Take My Baby, (2016), BAFTA for best drama series for This Is England 90 (2016).
Agent: Rachel Taylor at Casarotto