Alex is the newly-appointed Editor of whatsonstage.com, the UK’s leading theatre website. As a critic, he is also involved in assessing for the Offies Awards (Off West-End Theatre). When he has any other time, he is a writer of plays. Alex made his Edinburgh writing debut last year with NINE FOOT NINE, an interesting and engaging sci-fi play with a lot to say about gender, size and power. I was lucky enough to meet Alex a couple of years ago and I know that he is a significant rising talent. The play was shortlisted for the 2018 LET Award, and showcased at the Royal Court as part of their International Women’s Day programme. Having seen NINE FOOT NINE last year, I wanted to talk to Alex about its return to Bristol, Manchester and London this week, produced by Sleepless Theatre Company, as part of the INCOMING FESTIVAL.
Alex, thanks for talking with me. Firstly, could you tell those readers who haven’t seen it what the play is about?
NINE FOOT NINE starts with an off-the-wall premise – what would happen if most women around the world grew to over nine feet tall. It blends a pretty low-key sci-fi premise (like something out of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman!) with discussions about gender, power and relationships. We follow a family of three as they go through this strange experience together, and see how it shapes them.
How did the idea for NINE FOOT NINE come to you?
It was actually during a discussion with the show’s director (and Sleepless’ artistic director), Helena Jackson, while at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016. We were talking about heights and identity (I think it was after I watched a show by Babolin at Bedlam that it came to me!) So Sleepless has been there throughout. I also did a lot of research on physicality, gender and height in history before 2016 so the flame had been burning for a little while.
How long did it take to develop into a full script?
A LOT longer than I initially expected! I had some scenes started in 2016 and we had a rough draft finished in 2017. But that version really really didn’t work at all – there were twice as many characters, strange subplots and a man bookending the show by giving two lectures on Saussure (a Swiss linguist and semiotician). We had to have a very thorough rewrite before getting to the stage in 2018.
I saw the show at its pre-Edinburgh tryouts last year at The Bunker. In what ways did that run help you to refine the show?
The six performances we did at the Bunker were an absolute blessing – the venue was so full of brilliant individuals (also a big shout-out to Matt Maltby at Pint Sized for all his feedback) who told us what we needed to hear – i.e., what worked and what really didn’t. And watching the show for the first time, there were a lot of tricky bits. We got rid of two scenes and added a further three – refining the concept, getting rid of some distracting interludes and making it all a lot fleeter. By the time we got to Edinburgh it was a completely new offering.
The show is fully captioned and I believe all venues are fully accessible for the current mini-tour. As a strong supporter of accessibilty myself, I wondered if there was something specific that made inclusiveness (for actors and audiences) such an important thing for you with this play?
I think the reason why it is so important is because in the play it isn’t important – while the show is creatively captioned and Alex, who plays Cara, speaks BSL, none of this affects the plot, the concept or the themes. Productions don’t have to be directly about inclusivity to be inclusive, which is something that I think we’re seeing a big shift towards in recent years (fingers crossed, this will continue).
Do you have the same cast as last year?
Exactly the same as last Edinburgh!
What future life do you see for the play?
At the moment a few venues are interested in giving the show another life so we’re keeping all the options open (and keeping the set in my basement…). But for now we’re just thrilled to be back as part of Incoming, there are so many staggeringly great shows that are part of the festival that it’s an honour to rub shoulders with them. The whole team at the festival are delightful.
Are you working on other ideas that you can tell us about?
I’ve got a few plays in the pipeline but finding time to really get them mounted has been a nightmare! There’s an all-female historical drama and a love story set in Pudsey (where I was born) that are almost ready. Whether or not they’ll see the light of day is another question…hopefully I’ll be able to say more in 2020!
Nine Foot Nine plays as part of the Incoming festival, visiting Bristol on 27 June (Tobacco Factory Theatres, 8.30pm, details here), Manchester on 29 June (HOME, 8.30pm, details here, and London on 30 June (New Diorama, 7.00pm, details here). Last few tickets at all venues- hurry!