Obituary: Michael Ross – ‘gifted playwright whose work tackled contemporary issues’
The playwright Michael Ross, whose latest work, The Shy Manifesto, recently finished a five-week UK tour, has died of cancer, aged 40.
A graduate of the Royal Court’s Young Writers Programme, Ross tackled contemporary issues such as social media, housing, homelessness and corporate greed. His play, Happy to Help, an acerbic comedy set in a supermarket, was produced at London’s Park Theatre in 2014, having been previously short-listed for the Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize. It was later published by Methuen Plays.
He also wrote They Won’t Kill You (2006), A Handful of Mustard Seed (2010), Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (2012), Saving Souls in Soho (2013), The Utility People (2013), Work Makes You Free (2014), Damn Your Eyes (2015) and, most recently, The Good Landlord, about London’s housing crisis, which played at Vault Festival in February. A review of The Good Landlord on the theatreweekly.com website described it as “a fantastically funny and energetic performance”.
It was while The Shy Manifesto and The Good Landlord were both in rehearsal that Ross succumbed to the cancer that had only been diagnosed in December. Anthony Hollis, co-producer of The Shy Manifesto, spoke of the “shock and sadness” of the whole company. “Although Michael didn’t get to see the production, we managed to get an audio recording to him in the hospice, and he saw the published text of the play before he died,” said Hollis.
The Shy Manifesto, which opened at the Newcastle Live Theatre on January 30, was thought to be Ross’ most autobiographical play to date, about a teenage boy, Callum, who is not ashamed to be shy in a world full of narcissism and bluster. Even as an adult, Ross was quiet and unassuming.
Theo Ancient, a close friend of Ross who played Callum in this solo show and appeared in Ross’ play The Utility People, in 2013, said the rehearsal period for The Shy Manifesto had been “emotionally tough”, knowing Ross was unlikely to live to see his play performed. “It gave the director Cat Robey and me a real determination to keep going because it was the best way to honour his memory,” he said.
In an appreciation of the playwright in the Guardian, critic Miriam Gillinson described him as “a witty dramatist with a particular interest in the alienating impact of technology”. His work, she wrote, was “a gift to actors: light and energetic, lacking in pretension and full of compassion”.
Tracy Sinclair’s review of The Shy Manifesto for The Stage spoke of a “compact and often very funny show… a bittersweet examination of growing up in the social media age”.
Ross grew up in Surbiton, Surrey, and studied scriptwriting at Bournemouth University before returning to live and work in London. While honing his craft as a playwright, he worked at the National Theatre bookshop for more than 10 years, where he was responsible for providing monologue suggestions to young actors.
NT bookshop manager Christopher Roberts said: “Michael made an incomparable contribution to the National Theatre with his encyclopaedic knowledge of plays and playwriting.”
His agent, Nick Quinn, described Ross as “an exceptional talent, with a darkly funny tow to his writing. It is a great cruelty that he was taken so young. His work has touched and delighted audiences for more than a decade.”
Michael Ross was born on January 3, 1979, and died on January 23, 2019. He is survived by his mother, brother and sister.
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