When we speak, Tom Wells is still one draft away from the completed version of his latest play Broken Biscuits, opening at Hull Truck next month.
It’s difficult to describe just how softly spoken and unassuming this award-winning, much-lauded playwright is. His work is bold and unapologetic, funny, insightful –and he is about the quietest writer I’ve ever interviewed.
“I suppose at this point it’s just about making it as good as you can,” says Wells. “It’s coming together. Hearing the music and seeing the model box makes it much more real. Plus, it’s been cast now, so that gives you a chance to make the draft much more specific to the people who are in it. When you are writing a draft you normally hear a version of the character in your head, whereas now I can hear the actors who are actually going to be in it. Instead of a voice in my head.”
When Wells becomes more confident is when he is talking about the work. For him it always has been all about the work.
He began working as a playwright in 2009 when he joined the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s new writing group So You Want to Be a Writer. The Hull-born writer came up with a story about a young man trying to enter the gay clubbing scene of Hull. Called Me As a Penguin, it is fondly remembered by those who first saw it at the Playhouse and it heralded the arrival of an interesting new talent. It was staged a year later at London’s Arcola Theatre. In 2011 Wells had his breakthrough hit, The Kitchen Sink. Staged at the Bush Theatre it won Wells several awards including the Critics’ Circle Award for Most Promising Playwright.
Success took him to London, but Wells left his heart in Hull, which is where he has returned.
“It feels like the world I know and understand and have a lot of affection for,” says Wells, whose plays have often been East Riding based. “I actually have moved back to Hull and live here now. I moved to London to do a specific job. I got a writing resident job at the Bush theatre and I just stayed down there – but I miss my mum and dad.”
It would be easy to wonder if you’re a playwright, moving back to Hull the year before it becomes the UK City of Culture might be a calculated move, a hard-nosed decision. Hopefully by this point, you’ll have the impression that calculated and hard-nosed are about as far away from an apt description of Wells as it is possible to get. Having said that, it is a good time for him to be back.
“Hull is having a renaissance in terms of arts in the city and it feels like it’s got a bit more confidence in itself and almost a bit of swagger,” he says. “I love the idea of Hull as a bit of a hub.”
It certainly seems the case that Hull is finding its identity. Let’s not forget, though, it was a place that birthed one of the country’s most distinctive theatre companies in Hull Truck and was the home city of Philip Larkin, Alan Plater and Barrie Rutter: all cultural firebrands at one point.
Wells witnesses a not dissimilar energy in the city at the moment.
“There are emerging companies like Middle Child and The Roaring Girls and brilliant community arts organisation who are all doing stuff,” he says. “It feels really genuine and soulful and a bit celebratory which is kind of lovely. When I left those companies didn’t exist, so it’s lovely to come back and see a bustling community of artists and people making work.” Clearly, he’s a happy man. Will that have an effect on his work? The Kitchen Sink was a love letter to his home city and family. Jumpers for Goalposts, another hit, was a beautifully told love story. Will the same affection be there for home, now that he’s back, in the latest play Broken Biscuits? “It’s the same company and same team, same director as Jumpers, so hopefully it will have a bit of that sense in it,” he says. “It’s the story of teenagers who have just finished GCSEs and about to start college and feel like school’s not gone all that well for them. They would quite like to reinvent themselves as slightly cooler versions of themselves. So they start a band but do it with the confidence that comes of being 16 but perhaps without any musical abilities. It’s a play with songs – you just want to do something that feels new each time, even though in the end it’s a play about a group of characters who are gently eccentric outsiders opening up.”
At Hull Truck November 1-5, Stephen Joseph Theatre, November 8-13, Sheffield Studio, November 15-19.