Playwright Jon Brittain: ‘I’ve made the show I would want my friends with depression to see’

Jon Brittain Jon Brittain

Jon Brittain talks to Emily Jupp about his new fringe show that explores the funny side of depression, following Mr Methane in a Wetherspoons and what Michael Frayn had to say about his Olivier-winning play Rotterdam

What are you working on during the fringe?

We’ve got Margaret Thatcher Queen of Game Shows [which has run at the fringe since 2014] and then A Super Happy Story (About Feeling Super Sad). But I’m just the writer on that, so I just sit at the side and let them get on with it.

Do you ever get the urge to interfere?

I am a massive control freak, so yes I have to be conscious of that and make sure my notes go to the director; but there is a part of me that wants to say: “Just tell them it should be done like this.”

What is A Super Happy Story (About Feeling Super Sad) about?

It’s an hour-long play with songs by Matthew Floyd Jones, who’s the pianist and vocalist from Frisky and Mannish. Sally, the main character, tells the audience her story but she wants it to be funny; gradually she talks about her history with depression. It’s a funny and hopeful look at depression… It’s the show I would want my friends with depression to see. I wanted the play to be about that feeling you’ve achieved something by recovering from a mental illness, then you make it part of your identity and then when you relapse it’s even harder. So I want to carry on that conversation. It’s also designed to be a fun night out. It’s not a show where you will leave feeling depressed, and that will hopefully lure people in.

A Super Happy Story (About Feeling Super Sad). Photo: The Other Richard
A Super Happy Story (About Feeling Super Sad). Photo: The Other Richard

Have you ever suffered with depression?

Yes. I have experienced depression. I have, I guess, a tendency towards it. I had it really bad once and then last year I found myself going that way again. But then I went to Australia and it was like resetting. I stepped off the plane and I thought: “I feel all right!” There was a time a few years ago where I thought: “Okay, this isn’t normal,” and I had eating disorders as well. There’s this horrible thought that sometimes comes into my brain and there’s a line in [Lucy Prebble’s play] The Effect that sums it up. I’m paraphrasing, but it’s that depression makes you more truthful with yourself. There are tests you can do that measure how accurately you assess your position in the world and depressed people are more accurate. It’s like we need a filter to make us think it’s all okay. Right now, I feel okay. I will always have certain issues and what I’ve been able to do is know when to ask for help. I’ve done CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy] and that’s been helpful. Thinking about your brain as a machine you’re slightly at the whim of, I actually like that.

Are you an old hand at the fringe?

This is my 11th year at the fringe. In 2008, we did a show called Couple of Couples of Comics. It was me and John Kearns. We were at a Wetherspoons pub following Mr Methane, who is Britain’s only professional flatulence artist. For his final stunt he would lie on his back with a dart gun, put on a bowler hat and fire a dart out of his arse. The Wetherspoons was next to the Assembly Room and people would come through and get a drink and then say: “Really sorry, we’ve got to go, we’ve got tickets to Ed Byrne.” I also had an allergic reaction to the pillows in the place we were staying and I went out to get an inhaler. When I got back, the guys I was staying with had wrapped everything in cling film, including my laptop, the pillows and the wardrobe. I spent the rest of the day unpeeling my possessions.

After Rotterdam [Brittain’s 2015 play about identity politics], you volunteered for Gendered Intelligence, doing writing workshops with people who identify as non-binary and trans. Are you still working with them?

We have done a couple of writing groups, including one last year over two days at the Royal Court. They were really fun for me, and hopefully for those that took part as well. We would like to make it into a 10-week course where we help people develop their first or second play, it just seems like a sensible thing to do. I’ve had quite a lot of success with Rotterdam and I had friends who were transgender and I’d never seen their experience on stage. And by doing it on stage, I then realised I don’t see many people backstage either.

Margaret Thatcher Queen of Game Shows. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic
Margaret Thatcher Queen of Game Shows. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

Have you seen Summer in London [Rikki Beadle-Blair’s show with an all-transgender cast]?

Yes I really enjoyed that, my friend Ash [Palmisciano] is in it. We’re making a show in Birmingham at the end of the year, we’ve got a working title that is The Ultimate Lad. We’ll try it out at a festival there and that will hopefully evolve and be at next year’s fringe. It’s a lovely show that proves the talent is out there.

You won an Olivier award for Rotterdam, has that changed things much?

Probably, yes. It led to the West End transfer of Rotterdam, the effect of that meant that people I’ve loved for years came to see it. [Noises Off writer] Michael Frayn saw it, he said it could have been shorter. Fair enough, it probably could be – but I can’t work out how to do it.

What else are you working on right now?

A play for LAMDA about many things: young men, friendship, mortality and depression. And it has got jokes in. I’m developing that with Donnacadh [O’Briain], who directed Rotterdam. It’s still in a primordial stage. It’s like when you’re an archaeologist and you don’t know where the dinosaur is, but you do know where to dig. I’ve found a skull and a hip, I think. Some bits are harder to find than others. It’s really nice working with the students at LAMDA, they call bullshit on your lazy thinking. I’ve also got a couple of TV ideas. I grew up loving BBC2 at 6.30pm. Things like Quantum Leap and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but my first love is theatre and you have to honour the thing that gave you success in the first place.

CV: Jon Brittain

Born: 1987, Chester
Training: BA (hons) in drama, University of East Anglia; MA in writing for performance, Goldsmiths
Landmark productions: The Wake, National Student Drama Festival (2009); Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho, Edinburgh Fringe (2014); Rotterdam, Theatre503, London (2015), Trafalgar Studios, London (2017)
Awards: National Student Drama Festival award for comedy for The Wake, 2009; Brighton Argus Angel award for Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho, 2014; Olivier for achievement in an affiliate theatre for Rotterdam, 2017
Agent: Lily Williams at Curtis Brown

Part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, A Super Happy Story (About Feeling Super Sad) is at the Pleasance Courtyard until August 28 and Margaret Thatcher Queen of Game Shows is at the Assembly George Square Gardens until August 27