Jim Cartwright play shines light on gritty reality of life in the North

Hull Truck is reviving Jim Cartwright’s powerful modern classic Two. Nick Ahad speaks to director Mark Babych.

Nicola Stephenson as Landlady and Matthew Wilson as Landlord in Jim Cartwrights Two, opening at Hull Truck Theatre next week.
Nicola Stephenson as Landlady and Matthew Wilson as Landlord in Jim Cartwrights Two, opening at Hull Truck Theatre next week.

Pubs are closing. Community centres are on their knees. Margaret Thatcher’s words inch ever closer to reality: we’re slowly turning into a land in which there is no such thing as society.

The pub, the post office, the curry house; all places that were once upon a time centres of community, are facing annihilation. Post Offices are disappearing at an alarming rate, the Hostile Environment is wreaking havoc on the Asian restaurant trade and the pub is being laid to waste by a shift in attitudes and supermarket shelves straining with cheap beer.

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A story set in a pub, then, might not resonate with a modern audience. Unless, of course, it’s written by one of the great chroniclers of Northern life.

Nicola Stephenson and Matthew Wilson in rehearsals for Two.

Two is Jim Cartwright’s perfectly polished little gem of a play. Featuring two actors playing a wealth of characters who appear in a local pub one night, it’s a slice of Northern life that anyone who was raised above the Midlands will recognise.

It also has a huge amount to say about society, and about, to borrow a phrase, life in a Northern town.

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It was an instant and huge hit. Cartwright’s third play, it followed his multiple-award winning 1986 hit Road and 1988’s Bed, which premiered at the National Theatre. It was a few years away from his monster hit The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, but Two showed that Cartwright was a playwright with plenty to say about the gritty reality of a life in the North.

The play's director Mark Babych.

The play is being revived next month at Hull Truck Theatre with the venue’s artistic director Mark Babych at the helm. It’s not the first time Babych has encountered the Cartwright classic.

“One of my first jobs in theatre was directing three new plays written for a summer youth theatre project at the Octagon Theatre Bolton. It was there that I met Jim Cartwright for the first time – this was the man who had written the legendary Road which I had seen at the Royal Court Theatre in London when I was still a student and it blew me away.

"I had never seen the language and characters of the North portrayed in this way. It was gutsy, poetic and raw and now here I was, a fledgling director, stood next to one of my writing heroes, both of us battling with opening a new play,” says Babych.

It’s easy to understand Babych’s sense of awe. Cartwright belongs to that rare group of Northern writers who use our vernacular and speak to a universal audience. Babych remembers 1989 as a heady time.

“At the time Sue Johnston and John McArdle were flying high from their success on the TV show Brookside and it was really thrilling seeing them at work and bringing Jim’s play to life.

"I will never forget that first performance in Bolton, John and Sue were incredible, and Jim’s play hit me like a train with its suckerpunch of an emotional ride; from raw comedy to brutality to downright devastating. It has stayed with me for a long time and I’m thrilled to be in its company again,” he says.

If you haven’t seen Two –and there have been a number of opportunities over the past decade, it being a popular programming choice for Yorkshire’s theatres, it has flashes of typical Cartwright humour, but it is also laced with violence and the potential for violence throughout.

Babych says: “It’s a really beautiful piece of writing and one which I know our audience will love. This will be the second time I have directed it, but I am approaching it very differently now; maybe with the benefit of more years, or simply the joy I get from being a parent and having a loving and supportive relationship. I can see the depth of longing that these characters have (or don’t have) in their search for happiness and joy.

“It’s a play about people needing to connect with each other (and sometimes failing), I think that’s a very powerful and resonant theme to be exploring and presenting in these difficult times.”

It is, of course, one of Cartwright’s great strengths, that his work continues to speak to today, more than 30 years since the play was first written.

Babych says: “Even though the play was first performed in 1989 our aim is to make a production that feels universal and timeless. Whilst rooted in the North it isn’t hard to see how it can relate to anyone anywhere on a very basic human level.

"Everybody rows, everybody knows a clown, someone in need of company, a friend. Everybody has moments in their life where they will have experienced something like what the characters are going through, or at least know someone like them.”

The production also marks a first collaboration under Babych’s reign with Hull Truck’s neighbours up the coast in Scarborough – the Stephen Joseph Theatre. “We are really excited to be working with our friends at the Stephen Joseph Theatre and it will be the first time since I began working here we have been able to stage something specifically for the round which is a format that really excites me.

"The process of co-producing demands a close and collaborative working relationship where all of us are working to produce the best piece of theatre for our audiences. Our colleagues in Scarborough have been extremely supportive of everyone trying to reach the same artistic goal. It’s a fantastic theatre with a magical space and we can’t wait to play the production there.”

Set over the course of one night in a Northern pub, Two features two actors playing eight characters each. The mainstays of the story are the landlord and landlady with locals, regulars and not-so-regulars turning up, including a loveable couple, a bully and their victim, and someone who is grieving.

Two by Jim Cartwright is at Hull Truck Theatre, March 5 to 28. For details and tickets call the box office on 01482 323638 or visit hulltruck.co.uk

Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough March 31 to April 18. For details and tickets call the box office on 01723 370541 or visit sjt.com.uk