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Jess Phillips MP: How I made my first foray into writing for theatre

Elizabeth Boag, Anna Fordham and Anna Odeke in Women in Power at NST City. Photo: The Other Richard
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This is my first experience of writing a play. The producers and director of Women in Power – A Musical Comedy got in touch with me and asked if I’d be interested in writing something. I tend to say yes to everything I’m asked to do, as I may never get these opportunities again.

Because politics is so dramatic at the moment, political drama – like Bodyguard on television – is fascinating to people. It is fundamentally dramatic. There is life, love and death in politics, so it lends itself to drama.

Six of us have written distinct sections of the piece. Mine opens the play, and I was given some scene-setting. It’s got some amazing people writing it, including Suhayla El-Bushra, Shappi Khorsandi and Wendy Cope, though we’ve not spoken to each other at all.

I found it really easy to write, as they just wanted me to write a speech, which I’m used to doing. It’s a monologue that opens the play. I wrote it exactly as I would write any speech, though without any facts and figures. It is a speech by a woman pretending to be a man to an audience of other women pretending to be men. It’s trying to convince the forum – and the audience – to let women take over.

The only difference is that when I speak on public platforms I don’t usually write it down. I write three things down on a bit of paper and say it – though the practice of writing speeches is something I’m used to and I understand how long it takes to say things. As a politician you become very practised at that, especially in the House of Commons as you’re time-limited.

The play is based on the Greek classic, The Assemblywomen, and is set in the period – or at least I was sent the synopsis of the play as a period piece – but they told me to be humorous, so I included a lot of anachronisms and they were fine with that.

My speech is a mix of comedy and a call to arms. Hopefully, it will inspire people to believe in women. I wrote it in my own voice – I’m afraid my writing skills are limited to that. It taught me that if I did write a full play, I could only really be about me.

The speech I wrote is relevant to my experience as an MP – I stand up in the House of Commons to convince people, but the point is that people won’t want to hear it. I can’t imagine there’s another place in the world where the people opposite you, the audience you’re facing, don’t want to hear what you have to say. So when you’re putting together an argument, the whole point of it is to create tension, whether trying to get people to change their minds, or to criticise something.

I love the theatre. My mother-in-law was an administrator at the Arts Council in the West Midlands so we always used to get cheap or free tickets to get into shows. I struggle to get to the theatre in London now as I just don’t have any time.

It is not my only recent involvement in theatre at the moment. David Hare has written I’m Not Running for the National Theatre about a woman politician and I’ve been helping the actors. It shows: the audiences are really interested in the subject. So, maybe one day I will write a play – a political play – after all.

Women in Power – A Musical Comedy runs at NST City, Southampton until 29 September

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