Have recently finished writing a ten minute play for the next round of CAST IRON. It’s an odd little thing, one that I wasn’t too sure what I was saying with it until at least halfway through writing it. Possibly I still don’t. Largely this is because the play has been dictated more by location than narrative; at least to begin with.
Of course, it’s reasonably often that stage plays have their narrative shaped by a single location. It’s a naïve playwright (or one confident of a large budget) that will have the location switch every few minutes, as if it’s cinema. Obviously a smart director will not panic too much about scene one being set at the edge of a volcano, and the next scene being in an airport departure lounge – hopefully good dialogue will hold the audiences hands through such willing suspensions of disbelief. When scene three is set in an airplane cockpit, a swimming pool, or even somewhere as apparently banal and simple as a driver’s car seat, the location can be something of an irritant.
Having said all that, I’m currently fascinated by the possibilities of such restriction on location. Not exactly a ‘locked room mystery’ so beloved of the likes of Agatha Christie, but in the same ballpark (ooh! Ballpark! Another location!). Partially this is because I can see the next series of Inside No 9 coming over the horizon. Created and written by Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, Inside No 9 is a series that – for me at least – revels in unpicking a conceptual problem, and seeing how a story works. Despite the reputation to casual viewers, the series is much less interested in so called ‘twist endings’ (although a great many of the episodes have literally that), as much as it’s fascinated by unknotting a technical, or narrative conceit. So there are stories told in (mostly) silence, stories told in strictly edited segments of time, and stories told purely through the screens of (unmoving) CCTV cameras. So it’s clear that Shearmsith and Pemberton enjoy setting up storytelling challenges for themselves, and it’s always interesting to see what path they wander down: with or without breadcrumbs.
And while a fixed location isn’t always exactly the challenge they’ve set themselves, it’s something that comes up in their DNA a lot, and I became intrigued as a writer to see what would happen if you set up the location before even considering the content, or the narrative. Partially, this was inspired by a throwaway comment in an interview that may not even have been accurate (in fact, I’m pretty sure I saw it denied subsequently): that if a third series was commissioned, there was a possibility that there would be a spin-off, online only series (perhaps called Inside No 9a) of ten minute plays that could be entered by aspiring writers and filmmakers. And since, as I’ve alluded to already, one of the things I’ve admired most about Inside No 9 was the refusal to tell stories in an ‘easy’ or complacent way, I began to think about restrictive spaces, and throwing together people that wouldn’t usually share that same space.
As it turned out, Inside No 9a never happened (although series three of the parent programme was commissioned, and returns to the BBC in October), and I didn’t write the short films. However, when I began writing my next short play for the next Cast Iron night (that semi-regular evening of short plays we produce at the DukeBox Theatre) the same preoccupations surfaced. Obviously, it’s slightly different, since – again – it’s more logical to keep a stage play in the same place, particularly if your play is only ten minutes. So I wrote a play entirely set in a karaoke booth, pushing the people into the location before I thought too much about why they were there. And while the play that I ended up writing ended up being more interested in the characters than the restrictions of location (which is probably a good thing), I’m grateful that the brilliance of Inside No 9 inspired me to write something new, even if it is entirely unrelated.
Well, I say entirely unrelated: once I’d emailed the script off to the director and writers, I started writing an article previewing the upcoming series of Inside No 9. Which is when I discovered that they have already written an episode set in a Karaoke booth. No doubt their one will be scarier than mine. In the plus column, the other three ‘restrictive’ locations I have in mind aren’t included in the episode list. I’d better get writing …