Playwright Vinay Patel: ‘Putting on the play is not enough – it’s who you get in the room’
After making his name in theatre with True Brits for HighTide, Vinay Patel went on to write acclaimed television drama Murdered by My Father. He tells Natasha Tripney how his epic new show An Adventure, commissioned by London’s Bush Theatre, is inspired by his grandparents’ journey from India to the UK via east Africa
Vinay Patel apologises for being tired. He has good reason to be. He’s been all but living in the rehearsal room for his new play, An Adventure, which is due to open at the Bush Theatre a few days after we speak, and it was recently announced that he will be among the writers contributing to the new series of Doctor Who. But though he repeatedly mentions that’s he’s knackered, it doesn’t show. He’s a voluble and insightful talker, careful with his words and enthusiastic about theatre and its possibilities.
An Adventure is a huge project by any standards. An ambitious, decade-spanning continent-hopping story of migration and marriage, with a running time of over three hours, it was inspired by the experiences of Patel’s grandparents who travelled from Gujarat in India to east Africa before coming to Britain in the 1970s. His mum and dad were born in Nairobi – and he spoke a dialect of Gujarati laced with Swahili – but once in London, his family didn’t talk about that previous period in their lives. “I knew nothing about my history,” he says.
With his grandparents getting older, Patel increasingly felt the need to tell their story. This was exacerbated by the fact his grandmother had recently started to talk more about her marriage and her life, things he had never heard her express before.
Patel decided that if he was to write about his grandparents, he would need to tell “the entirety of their stories because that’s the only way you understand who they became”. He embarked on research at the British Library, exploring the independence movement in east Africa. He quickly realised that if he was going to do the story justice it “was probably going to be quite a big play”.
Writing An Adventure required a shift in thinking. When he started out as a playwright, he used to think that in theatre anything was possible, but it was only true “if you have loads of money”. So he did what many do and wrote a one-man play. “Your dramaturgical brain gets stuck in that mode,” he says. An Adventure was the first time he let himself go. “That was nice and also scary. Your process changes completely.”
Throughout the characters speak in colloquial English. There are no accents. The focus is on two young people and their emotional journey. This is part of what excited the Bush Theatre’s artistic director Madani Younis about the project. Patel told him: “There’s the small version, then there’s the big version.” Younis wanted him to write the big version.
Shortly after we meet, it emerges that Younis is to become creative director of the Southbank Centre in January. Patel is full of praise for him. “It’s bittersweet seeing Madani leave the Bush, but the work he’s brought into that building has been immense and it’s an honour to be his last production there.”
Having gone to university in Exeter, then worked as a technician at the Met Film School, Patel decided what he really wanted to do was write. He completed a master’s in writing at Central School of Speech and Drama in 2011 and stayed in London. The city is, he says, “the heart of theatre in the world”, and he values the strong sense of community that exists among his generation of playwrights. “It’s what keeps you engaged.”
After leaving Central he went to loads of scratch and new-writing nights, including the nearest theatre to him at the time, the Jack Studio Theatre in Brockley, south London. His play Bump was one of the winners of the theatre’s Write Now 4 competition. An attachment with the HighTide Festival followed and Patel wrote True Brits in 2014, a one-man play juxtaposing the Olympic celebrations with the political climate following the 7/7 London attacks. Writing in the Guardian, Lyn Gardner highlighted the play’s “complete honesty and unforced poetry”.
This success of True Brits led to Patel being selected for the Bush/Kudos TV writing scheme and to a commission for BBC iPlayer. Having never written a full-length piece for the screen before, he was surprised to be approached about writing Murdered by My Father, a drama about honour killings for the BBC. Initially Patel was reluctant to do it but, after seeing Ivo van Hove’s production of A View from the Bridge, he found himself thinking: “This could be an Asian family.”
He decided that if he was going to write it, he had to put the drama, rather than the issue, first. The characters needed to be whole and their relationships plausible. “Originally it was a 60-minute thing, but we needed more time to make those characters live,” he says. “I thought: ‘That would be a useful thing to put out into the world.’ ”
Originally broadcast on BBC3, it was repeated on BBC1. The police use it as part of their training. “It feels like art making a positive difference in the world – and isn’t that why we do it?”
It was, says Patel, “a really weird thing, going from writing a one-man play on the fringe to something going out on BBC3 in the space of a year and a bit”. It was nominated for a BAFTA for best single drama and Patel was selected as a 2016 BAFTA Breakthrough Brit. One of its leads, Adeel Akhtar, also became the first non-white actor to win a TV BAFTA for best actor. Despite this, Patel doesn’t shy away from explaining how distressing he found the process. “It was horrible to write. It was the most stressful thing; it really did a number on me.”
Q&A: Vinay Patel
What was your first non-theatre job?
Picking rubbish off the floor of my dad’s shop when I was about six. He’d offer me a 50p or a pound coin for doing it. I’d always take the 50p because it was bigger.
What was your first professional theatre job?
An Adventure was my first proper commission so I guess it’s writing this play.
What’s your next job?
Some television scripts and working on a play about George Lucas and the making of Star Wars on the side.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Being a good writer is more about effort than talent and sometimes you have to make the space for your stories to be heard. It’s okay if not everyone likes what you do.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Whoever was programming the weekend movies on BBC1 during the early 1990s.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I can never watch the first five minutes or so of the early performances of my plays. I keep my eyes shut and listen to the room settle into it. It’s nothing to do with the actors or the productions. It’s just about me feeling brave enough to accept that it’s happening.
One of the things that helped him through this period was the presence in his life of his cats. The story of Patel’s three – now, sadly, two – cats, that he befriended and subsequently adopted after their owner died, is one of the most joy-giving things on Twitter. Their furry faces frequently pop up on his timeline. “I’m a much more emotionally stable person for having them. When writing is going well you can become mono-focused. You work and work and work and they pull me out of that.”
This is an intensely busy year for Patel. As well as An Adventure, his play Sticks and Stones is touring the UK as part of the Paines Plough Roundabout season. A nuanced three-hander exploring the subject of offence, it was written relatively quickly. He started working on it properly only at the end of January. “I wouldn’t have done it for any other company,” he says. He describes it as more of a “head” play than a “heart” play, adding: “If you’re a writer from a minority background, people expect something more like An Adventure.”
Then came the news that Patel will be among the writers contributing to Chris Chibnall’s first season helming Doctor Who, along with author Malorie Blackman and fellow playwright Joy Wilkinson. There’s very little he’s able to say about this but it’s notable that he and Blackman will be the first writers of colour in the show’s 55-year history.
Success, he says, means that “people trust you more if you have wilder ideas”. It also means he’s able to put his money where his mouth is and support the artists he believes in, as he did recently, investing in Isley Lynn’s play Skin a Cat. “Isley’s someone who should be on bigger stages than she is.”
How does he feel about the state of theatre at the moment? Cuts to Arts Council funding mean that while “there is more potential for new voices, it’s harder for them to establish themselves and move on”, he says.
It’s also an interesting time for Asian writers. “I never thought there’d be this much diversity within diversity.” How do you sustain that? “You need to champion things, try to create financial support and push organisations to think more creatively about the kind of work they programme.” It’s also important to explore how you invite and engage with audiences, he adds. “Putting on the play is not enough. It’s who you get in the room.”
CV: Vinay Patel
Born: 1986, Sidcup
Training: MA in writing, Central School of Speech and Drama
• True Brits, HighTide (2014)
• Sticks and Stones, Paines Plough/Theatr Clwyd (2018)
• Murdered by My Father, BBC (2016)
Agent: Kelly Knatchbull at Sayle Screen