The Big Interview: Jim Cartwright

Jim Cartwright and rehearsals, below.
Jim Cartwright and rehearsals, below.
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Jim Cartwright is perhaps one of the most infuriating people to interview you might ever meet.

Some interviewees are difficult because they don’t want to play the game and are there under duress. Some because they’re trying to hide something so end up being deliberately evasive and others because they want to reveal nothing of themselves but talk only about the product they are there to flog.

Cartwright doesn’t fall into any of these categories.

He is infuriating for an entirely different reason. Basically, he is far too modest to blow his own trumpet. In fact, when we meet at a lovely hotel in Malton in North Yorkshire, it’s hard to escape the fact that actually, what he would love to do is sit there, next to the fire and spend the afternoon idly chatting, observing, watching real life happen in front of us.

It makes sense really, that his natural state is observing human exchanges. It’s how you feel when in the audience of one of his many hit plays, where nothing feels forced or artificial. Watching him tuck into a cheese sandwich while batting away questions – entirely amiably – about his craft, it is clear that authenticity is a result of Cartwright’s skills of observation.

However, as tempting as it is to simply sit and watch the world go by with Cartwright for the afternoon – and he is brilliant company – I need him to talk about his intriguing new play.

The reason he’s playing hide and seek is because a few months back we met in London, when he was preparing to direct his hit play The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. Back then he was, not exactly happy, but at least willing to discuss the success he has had. He did, however, stress that he felt not massively talented, nor somehow blessed as “the special one”, to borrow a phrase from an arena where hubris is in over-supply, but lucky. Lucky to have had the success he has enjoyed in his career and lucky also to have had family and friends around him to ensure his feet were kept very firmly on the ground.

Meeting him second time round, it quickly becomes apparent that getting him to talk about his work could again prove tricky.

“Oh hello, I didn’t realise it was you doing the interview, lovely to see you again,” he says. A good sign. “I remember we talked about your career last time,” is the introduction to my opening question. I don’t get any further.

“Yep, so we don’t really need to do all that again, do we?” he says.

Cartwright isn’t being difficult – he’s truly one of the friendliest people I’ve ever interviewed. He just would rather not go over the many, many hits of his impressive career for fear of embarrassment.

So a quick precis might be useful. Born in Farnworth, near Bolton, in 1958, Cartwright moved to London to ‘live a bohemian lifestyle’. Hanging out with a trendy young set, including a number of early career actors, he’d been writing bits and pieces and showing them to friends, who were encouraging. One of these friends was Drop the Dead Donkey actor Neil Pearson, whose girlfriend at the time was a director – and she got one of his early scripts to the Royal Court. The script was produced in 1986 and Road became an international hit. His next play, Bed, opened at the National Theatre, won a bucketload of awards and in 1992 Cartwright hit the stratosphere when The Rise and Fall of Little Voice was directed by Sam Mendes at the National Theatre. He has since written a number of films, more hit plays, a novel, and his work is studied around the world.

So back to the reason his latest project is so intriguing and why we’re in a hotel bar in Malton.

Bearing in mind all the details of his career so far – all the glittering success, Sam Mendes directing his work, Michael Caine appearing in the film of Little Voice – Cartwright is in Malton overseeing the production of his latest play in a venue that would be dwarfed, in every sense, by the National Theatre. He could be in London. He could be at home, counting royalty cheques. Instead, he’s in Malton, writing a new play for a new venue that was, until recently, a very big community hall that played host to the occasional ballroom dance and amateur dramatics.

“It’s passion, it’s the power of passion. Well, it’s definitely not for the money, I can tell you that much,” he says.

The passion he refers to is that of Nick Bagnall and Garry Cooper, the co-artistic directors of the Milton Rooms, the venue that last night witnessed the world premiere of Cartwright’s new play A Christmas Fair.

“I’ve known Nick for a while and he got in touch, asked if I would come and have a look at the place,” he says. “I came up last year and liked it. I knew if Garry and Nick were involved, it would have the stamp of quality. When you have men like this, good men with a lot of passion, it inspires you to believe in a project.

“This venue was clearly about them believing in something, not about the prestige or anything like that. I said I’d have a think about it and see if I could come up with something.”

He thought about the place for a while before inspiration struck. He describes his process of writing as being like the Argos system of shopping: “It all goes in and you wait for something to get delivered. When it arrives, you might think it’s not exactly what you ordered, but there you go.”

The thing is, Cartwright is clearly a man in demand. So to come up to Malton, lovely place though it is, clearly no thriving creative metropolis, something needed to tempt the playwright.

“I do have to think quite wisely about what I choose to do and what I don’t,” he says. “But I liked the place, I liked the guys. I had an idea to use the fact that it is somewhere you might have a Christmas fair, so I wrote something to fit with that.”

Bagnall and Cooper are running the Milton Rooms on a shoestring, hoping to establish the place as a leading arts venue in the area, the idea being that the success of the place will attract funding. It is their enthusiasm that has attracted the impressive talent thus far, with Jools Holland, Kathy Burke, Imelda Staunton and Bill Nighy all signed up as patrons of the venue.

Presumably Cartwright is also there for the idea much more than the money?

“No, I’m not charging what I could be,” he laughs, immediately realises this could be misinterpreted as arrogance and quickly adds: “Nobody is. There are some really great actors in this play and we’re all here because we want to make good work and this place is run by two men with integrity and passion. That’s an attractive combination.”

A Christmas Fair has caused something of a stir in theatre circles. One national newspaper said that while Dominic West in his first musical at the Crucible was one of this week’s hot tickets, a ticket for Cartwright’s play “might be even hotter.” .

It’s because of Cartwright’s impressive reputation, of course, that this is lauded as a theatrical event. So is this going to be a typical Cartwright play? An addition to the much studied oeuvre?

“If you start thinking like that, you’re knackered. I don’t know what a typical ‘Jim Cartwright’ play is. It comes out as it comes out,” he says. “I can’t start thinking about the ‘canon’ of my work (he laughs at the suggestion). If I started with all that business I’d be crippled.

“Picasso – not that I’m for one minute comparing myself – but Picasso didn’t get up in the morning thinking ‘today, I will paint a masterpiece’ – he got out of bed and decided ‘today I will paint the sun’.

“Whatever it is I’ve come up with, I hope it’s good – and I hope the people up here know what they’ve got.

“This isn’t a world premiere happening in London – it’s not even happening in Manchester or Liverpool or Leeds, but here. In Malton.”

What he won’t add, but should, is that not only is it a world premiere. It’s a world premiere of a Jim Cartwright play. And that’s something worth celebrating – by us. Even if the author is reluctant to admit it.

A Christmas Fair, The Milton Rooms, Malton, December 16 & 20 to 23. 01653 600048,