As Jim Cartwright’s latest play heads to Yorkshire, Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad spoke to the affable playwright.
Jim Cartwright’s enthusiasm really is a lesson to us all on how to live a good life.
The man’s work is translated around the world, he rocked the British theatrical establishment from his first play onwards, his work has dominated the stage of the National Theatre and he has often made the rare transition from writing for stage to both TV and film. The point is, he’s done it all and his enthusiasm is entirely undimmed.
Barely have I asked about his latest play, Raz, which is in Scarborough over the weekend and in Wakefield next month than he is enthusing about the show.
“Oh man it’s great, we went to Edinburgh with it and, if I say so myself, it went down a storm, the reviews were great, reviews like what your grandma would write. I haven’t got a grandma, but if I did I’m sure she’d write them like that. It was fantastic, and it won a Fringe First and all that, it was great, everything you could do we did,” he says.
“Then we got to bring it to London to the Trafalgar Studios and the same happened, it was really well received, on the whole great reviews, couple of sniffy ones, but you always get that.
“Absolutely loved it and now we’re off round the country with it on a tour.”
Really, Jim Cartwright is like a human positivity generator. It’s infectious.
Cartwright came to prominence in spectacular fashion in 1986 when his play Road was brought to the stage of the Royal Court. It won him the George Devine Award, the Samuel Beckett Award, it was revived twice before two years had passed and it marked the arrival of a startling new talent.
Startling not least because of where he had come from – but more of that later.
He followed Road with Bed at the National, then came the multi-award winning Two and then in 1992 he made a major step towards becoming a major playwright with The Rise and Fall of Little Voice at the National. It was later made into a movie with Jane Horrocks and Michael Caine.
All of which does beg the question, why on earth was he showing a new play in the melee of the Edinburgh Fringe last summer?
“You know me man, if somebody phoned me up and said they wanted something doing in a bus shelter in Bradford and it sounded interesting I’d do it.”
He probably would. Although he is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter, he laughs heartily when he talks about another career that has caught his eye in recent years – acting.
It started when an agent called and suggested he might be the perfect man to play a landlord in the Peter Moffat-written drama The Village. He auditioned, got the role, and quite a few more have followed.
“Acting is my favourite thing, it’s like a little jolly,” he says.
“When I was first asked I said I’d do it just cos I’ll do owt to get me from round the back of the keyboard – and I absolutely loved it. Never listen to actors when they moan, because it’s great – you get picked up, lovely girls do your make-up, it’s bloody great.
“I even got a swanky acting agent after I did The Village and I’ve done some proper work with actors of enormous power like Anne Marie Duff and Johnny Harris.”
The man loves life. It is possible that Cartwright is a lauded playwright who came from humble beginnings, easily heard in his still-heavy Northern accent, that makes him such an enthusiast. Growing up on a council estate in Farnworth, near Bolton in a very working class household, the odds were against him becoming a writer. Particularly given his previous admission that he could barely write when he left school.
Right now his enthusiasm is aimed at the new play, Raz, a one-man show about a night out on the town in contemporary Britain.
“You remember those pictures from New Year’s Eve, where you have girls on the street with their legs akimbo and lads in the background jumping around and her mate’s throwing up and their mates are fighting – well, that’s happening every Friday and Saturday night all over the country and I just thought ‘what’s going on here?’.
“That generation just doesn’t seem to have a voice in theatre, that generation who are living on minimum wage and are basically just existing. Plus I’m an old fart, so it was the only way I was going to get a night out – by writing about it.”
Cartwright says that the story of a ‘night out in boozy Britain’ had a natural home in Edinburgh, which is why he chose to open it at the Fringe. “It’s been nicely compared to Under Milk Wood crossed with Clockwork Orange and it’s been compared to Jerusalem and Trainspotting. That’s all nice, but I also think it’s just a good night out.”
It’s also got one James Cartwright, son of Jim, starring on stage. Before you think ‘nepotism’, Cartwright Junior is a well seasoned TV and stage actor who audiences might know as PC Burns in The Archers.
“It’s great to see my lad in it, he understands my work, he has an instinctive feel for it,
“It wasn’t written for him, we auditioned a few lads for it, we didn’t find quite what we wanted. I said ‘what about our kid?’ and we got him in and he was fantastic and he’s done a sterling job.
“It’s great man, we’re not like a theatrical family like the Redgraves and the Stoppards, we’re more like Steptoe and Son: leave your card at stage door, we’ll come and clear your garage.”
For once, I suspect he’s not entirely joking.
Jim Cartwright: 1986, Road, Royal Court Theatre, Winner of: George Devine Award; Plays and Players Award; Drama Magazine Award. 1988, Bed, National Theatre. 1989, Two, Bolton Octagon and Young Vic Theatre, winner of Manchester Evening News Theatre Award. 1992, The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, National Theatre, Winner of Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy, Olivier for Best Comedy for director Sam Mendes.
Raz, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, May 28, 29. www.sjt.uk.com Theatre Royal Wakefield, June 13, 14. www.theatreroyalwakefield.co.uk