It has to be said that London has to be one of the most liveliest, if not the liveliest city in the world. A city that appears to never sleep; every road, street, avenue and lane takes on a characteristic all of it’s own. With Kilburn High Road, it’s no different as playwright Suhayla El-Bushra highlights the roads identity and diversity in her latest project, The Kilburn Passion. Noted for her previous works: Pigeons, produced by the Royal Court and Cuckoo, performed at the Unicorn Theatre, I was able to speak to Suhayla ahead of the production, which sees the playwright collaborate with the Tricycle Young Company Ensemble, about the production being brought back by popular demand, why theatre is for everyone and how being a former resident helped to write the show!
You’re currently working with the Tricycle Young Company Ensemble on their production of the Kilburn Passion which will be playing from Tuesday 5th until Saturday 9th August. Could you describe what the production is about?
The production is a kind of modern day Passion Play. It’s about a disparate group of people on Kilburn High Road, all lonely and disconnected from the rest of the world, whose lives are changed when a (vaguely) Christ like figure appears and affects them all in some way. It’s also about alienation in a big city, how we learn to ignore all the people around us and switch off, especially in the digital age. It’s mainly about those two things but each character has their own little story, so there’s lots of other stuff going on too.
The production was initially performed in April as part of the Takeover Festival and is back by popular demand. How does that feel?
Amazing! I’m delighted that the cast get to do it again because it had such a short run the first time round and they worked so hard to make something quite special. It’s a proper show, with lots of dance routines so I’m pleased more people will get to see it.
The company comprises of young performers ages 19-25 years. How important are these types of ensembles within the performance industry?
How important are ensembles of young performers? I would say theatre is for everyone and ensembles of all kinds are important, so that all audiences are catered for and that everyone is given an opportunity to train. Also writing for young companies means the chance to write for large casts, which, as a relatively new writer you wouldn’t normally get to do. So it’s been important for me creatively as I’ve been able to escape the confines of naturalistic drama with a small cast and few locations, and work on a bigger canvas.
What have audience reactions been towards the Kilburn Passion?
Last time around they were great, very appreciative. The director Emily Lim has created a really uplifting show and there are some brilliant performances so people have been quite won round by the end. My mum cried is all I’m saying. And she doesn’t cry at much.
What inspired the creation of the piece?
The young company and the work Emily was doing with them. The things they were saying about themselves and how they felt about the world, the kind of theatre that inspired them, their performance styles and the way they were working physically, the atmosphere in the rehearsal room – it all went into the pot and this is what came out.
Could you describe the rehearsal process?
I went into the rehearsal room one evening a week for 4 weeks, usually feeling quite tired, and I sat there and watched this amazing collection of young people taking great delight in being creative and funny and interesting and brave – they didn’t mind making idiots of themselves but they didn’t mind taking themselves seriously either. Then I went away and tried to write a play that did them justice. Then I left them to it for a bit. Then I popped in a couple of times and thought Emily might have gone mad, because there was so much movement going on everywhere. Then I realized she was actually a genius and 21st Century London’s answer to Busby Berkeley. The whole thing was delightful.
Having been a former resident of a Kilburn, has this influenced your writing of the play at all?
Yes, hugely. The one stipulation the Tricycle gave me was that they wanted something that somehow reflected the local community and I knew from the start that it had to be set on Kilburn High Road. All of life is there, I’ve never lived anywhere that’s as mixed, so I wanted to reflect that. It was a massive part of my life when I was growing up, I had all sorts of experiences there! And returning to it 20 years later I was struck by how little it had changed. Lots of high streets have become quite homogenized, but Kilburn High Road hasn’t lost its identity. A few of the pubs have been tarted up but it still smells and feels the same to me, so the area is quite an important character in the play.
Your previous stage works, Cuckoo (Unicorn Theatre) and Pigeons (Produced by the Royal Court) have focused on the youthful voice. Do you feel that the youth need to be represented more within plays and the playwriting world?
When I wrote Pigeons and Cuckoo I was working in a pupil referral unit and I definitely felt that there was a particular type of youth that needed to be represented, or at least presented differently to how they had been. I felt that there was a generation of young people who we – the adults in charge – were failing to support and I wanted to draw attention to that. Of course I think it’s important that youth are represented in plays but I don’t always find it helpful to think specifically in terms of plays for young people and plays for older people. You should write characters and stories you care about and hopefully people of all ages will respond to them.
What advice would you give to aspiring performers and playwrights?
Keep chipping away at it. Stay true to yourself. Don’t eat too much at lunch, you’ll scupper yourself for the rest of the afternoon.
Interview by Lucy Basaba.
The Kilburn Passion will be performed at the Tricycle Theatre from Tuesday 5th-Saturday 9th August. For more information on the production, visit here…