The collected interviews of Jim Mulligan

From Wigan Kiss to Sugar Sugar

Shelter is a play with aimless characters wandering around trying to make sense of an absurd situation.

Simon Bent studied drama at Birmingham University and spent his formative years as a writer at the Royal National Theatre Studio under the direction of Peter Gill. He started work in the theatre as an actor and ASM for Caricature Theatre, Cardiff. Then he and a colleague formed a touring company, Frank ‘n’ Sime, for which he wrote a play called Wigan Kiss and they toured this around youth clubs, community centres and studio theatres.

It was when I became a writer in residence at Essex University that I decided to stop acting and to write full time. I had an office on the campus and anybody could drop in to discuss their ideas. I did a few workshops for M.A. students and I did some workshops at local prisons and remand centres.

Shelter is written for young people to act their own ages. Simon Bent did not want a seventeen-year-old playing a fifty-year-old. He welcomed the challenge of writing for a large cast and he wanted a subject that was relevant to them and one that he felt strongly about. Originally the play, ten minutes long in three acts, was written for the National Theatre Writers’ Workshop.

I did a lot of research and went to see people at Centre Point and spent nights in housing shelters. They knew I was a writer but they didn't mind. I don't think I ever penetrated into their world. To a point they volunteered their stories but not in detail. It would have been an intrusion if I had asked them about their life stories. In the play, of course, I know all the life stories because I have invented the characters but that doesn't mean to say I have to reveal everything. It is my way of writing to drop hints and make the audience work hard to fill in the gaps.

At the start of writing Simon Bent knew that there was a girl called Lesley who had a younger sister. Lesley is going to leave home for London where she will meet other young people living on the streets. At the end of the play she will disappear. After that he did not know for certain what would happen. In fact the play explores the lives of fifteen young people and in so doing touches on physical abuse, bullying, drug-taking, low-paid jobs, prostitution, begging and racism.

I found Shelter a very upsetting play to write because I kept on being drawn into situations where things were intolerable. Young people leave home because they are being beaten or sexually abused or there is not enough room for them at home. And all the time legislation is making it more difficult for them to survive. The problems for the homeless include the cold, sickness, their vulnerability, the loss of dignity. But I think the worst thing must be the sheer terror inside, the fact that anybody could come up and give them a severe beating and no one would care.

The play is structured as scenes interspersed with monologues when characters reveal themselves, not in a didactic way, but in order for the audience to be pulled up abruptly and for a new emotional level to be reached. The play starts with a scene in London and then cuts to a scene in a provincial town where Lesley says she is going to London. From then on, as we follow her until her disappearance, we go back to her home town to find out the effect of her leaving.

The monologues were an experiment to break into the action. When you are writing something I don't think you're always aware of what is happening. It is an adventure. The characters I was working with were good material and I let them work for me. Rather than me deciding a structure, sometimes the monologues declared themselves to me. Some issues I chose not to deal with. For example, Lesley's stepfather has beaten her, knocked her downstairs and forced her to leave home and her mother has not protected her daughter. I do not allocate blame here. I do not condone their behaviour but it is not an issue in this play.

Simon Bent makes a distinction between what a character says and what he would say about the situation. He rarely allows his characters to pass moral judgments, although in Shelter he allows one character to call Darren ‘a soft bugger’ because he is taking ecstasy. He also allows characters to comment mildly on Wayne’s virulent racism.

Shelter is a play with aimless characters wandering around trying to make sense of an absurd situation. One of the counterpoints to the central dialogue is the way these destitute young people discuss the potency of the advertising images that surround them, images of things there is no possibility of them buying, images of great sensuality and beauty.

The fragmented dialogue should work like music. If I structured it properly, what looks difficult on the page will appear very accurate with natural rhythms of speech. And there are some carefully constructed contrasts that should help. For example, in one scene Lesley is in a squat. She is totally adrift with nothing to hang onto. The next scene shows Lesley’s sister and Wally in a dark road. Both scenes are dark and frightening like a fairy story. And throughout you have the deliberate and unconscious humour of unrelated conversations being interwoven.

Shelter is a political play but it is not the agitprop of the seventies. The anger is understated. A fragment of society is portrayed without comment and the audience is left to make up its mind about how our society causes homelessness and deals with it.

I find it totally unacceptable that there should be homeless people sleeping on the pavements of our towns and I have written a play about it probably to draw attention to it, but I can't see that this play will make a big difference. The most I can hope for is that the young people who take part in the productions and their families will become more aware.

At the time of this interview, Simon Bent was in the final stages of finishing a new play called Sugar Sugar.