How playwright Laura Wade who made it to West End with piece inspired by Bullingdon Club was shaped by Sheffield childhood
If there was a sound guaranteed to transport Laura Wade back to her Sheffield childhood as a drama-mad schoolgirl, it would be the gentle thud of the Crucible theatre’s season brochure landing on the doormat at her family’s home.
“I was very excited when that came, I’d be flicking through and my parents would say ‘You can choose two or three things and we’ll book for them’,” she remembers. “And that would be quite a difficult choice. I wanted to see everything.”
The encouragement paid off – Wade has gone on to be one of Britain’s leading playwrights. Limbo, her debut, was staged at the Crucible Studio in 1996, and less than a decade later she made it to the West End with Posh, which focused on an odious Oxford student dining society clearly inspired by the real-life Bullingdon Club patronised by two future Prime Ministers, David Cameron and Boris Johnson.
Laura through the looking glassFurther successes have followed with Home, I’m Darling, in which a couple decide to live a 1950s lifestyle and revert to the era’s typical gender roles, and The Watsons, a critically-acclaimed adaptation of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel.
And she’s just been welcomed back to her home city, as Sheffield Hallam University has awarded her with an honorary doctorate which, she hopes, will be the start of a lasting partnership.
She missed her own graduation ceremony at Bristol University, where she gained a drama degree in the late 1990s – meaning she got the chance to make up for the missed experience two decades later.
“The departments that study theatre, performing arts and writing are so strong that it’s wonderful to think I could have an ongoing connection with them,” says Wade. “It feels really grown up.”
Sheffield, she says, is “very supportive” of young talent. “The really important thing is to help young people with talent to maximise that. It can be quite difficult finding your way into a profession like mine. “Their energy, passion, commitment and political fierceness I find very encouraging and inspiring, actually.”
Wade is speaking on the phone from her ‘writing shed’ at her home in north London. “I’m at my desk and quite happy,” she says brightly. “I’m working on a draft of a feature film I’ve been writing for a while, and various projects are all falling into place for next year.”
Wade was born in Bedford but grew up in Ecclesall, with The Crucible just a short bus ride away. “Crucible is the right word, there’s kind of a fire at the heart of it. My love of theatre started in that building. It’s the place I see in my head when I think of a theatre.”
The first show she can recall seeing is a production of The Railway Children in the main house. “It had in it what, at the time, I believed to be a real train – we’re talking age five or six,” she says.
“I was blown away by that. But we went to all sorts of stuff. I remember a production of Jesus Christ Superstar when I was very small that got me excited, and a Twelfth Night that was really wonderful. We went several times a year, we didn’t go every week, but I would be pushing my parents to take me more often.”
The daughter of a computer programmer and a ‘stay-at-home mum’, she wrote her own plays from a young age. “In my games with my friends there’d be a performance at the end... awful,” she says, chuckling. “The poor adults would come along and have to be the audience.”
But rather than leading a cast, her interest lay much more in ‘creating a story, and what the show was going to look like’, she explains. “I was actually quite a shy child, so I wasn’t the kid who was pushing myself forward and playing Mary in the school nativity play. But it’s the quiet ones you have to watch, isn’t it?”
10 of the funniest quotes ever written about SheffieldPosh – a sharp examination of power, privilege and entitlement – made waves when it premiered in timely fashion ahead of the 2010 General Election, which put the Conservative Party back in power with their Liberal Democrat coalition partners. It has very much stood the test of time, Wade thinks as another national poll looms on December 12.
“The concerns the play has have been proved,” she says. “That’s a mixed feeling, I’m not happy that’s happened, and I’d prefer it if our society was going in a direction that was more towards equality and fairness. It does mean the play still has a relevance. A lot of student groups do it quite often and get the political message of it.”
Wade – who wrote the screenplay for The Riot Club, Posh’s 2014 cinema version – admits she is dismayed by Johnson and his ilk’s continued grip on power. “I hope the upcoming election will give us a chance to re-evaluate that,” she says. “All bets are off, really. It’s very difficult to tell what will happen.”
Avowedly pro-EU – “I’m absolutely a Remainer, I’ve been on all the marches” – and a close observer of Brexit, she is nevertheless wary of addressing the turbulent national debate in a script.
"I haven’t found the right metaphor necessarily. I’m a big fan of ‘If you don’t know the answer it’s OK to stay quiet’. Plays take quite a long time to bring to the stage, rightfully so – as an art form it takes a long-distance view of things.”
She spent six years writing Home, I’m Darling, which starred Katherine Parkinson as Judy, the wife whose doomed attempts to live in the past end in calamity. “I had children in that time,” she reasons. “You do a draft of something, put it to one side and then go back. It deepens and matures.”
Wade, 42, has two daughters with the director and actor Samuel West, the son of stage couple Timothy West and Prunella Scales. Starting a family changed her working methods. “There are areas of my brain that have been colonised by family life. I’m juggling more things, so it takes more effort to focus on work.
“I’m careful now about how many things I say yes to, because I’ve got less time. I haven’t really written anything about it yet. It might take a few years to filter through – or it might be that work is in some way separate.”
The feature film that is keeping Wade ensconced in her shed is about “a Victorian woman who campaigned for changes in the marriage and divorce laws”.“It’s a story people don’t really know and is important – pre-Suffragettes and early feminism.
"And I’m working on a potential TV series set in the Regency period. That’s probably all I can say. If I talk too much about things I’m working on I get overly self-conscious and put myself off.”
Television, she says, is “great for writers” at the moment. “That’s my next career objective – to go through that process and learn more about it. But I don’t think I will ever stop writing plays.”