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Q & A with ‘Rotterdam’ writer Jon Brittain

October 14th, 2015


In just under two weeks, 503Five alumni Jon Brittain returns with a new full-length play Rotterdam. Alongside Hartshorn-Hook Productions, we are incredibly excited to be showing the premiere production of this fantastic piece of new writing, directed by Donnacadh O’Briain. Here’s what happened when Assistant Director Roxy Cook asked Jon a few questions about his writing and the play…

How did you become a playwright?

Kind of by accident. When I was a kid my Granddad would write me stories and my brother and I would make up our own. I always wrote jokes, stories and sketches but was also interested in acting, directing and comedy. I thought I was going to try and be a stand up comedian but it didn’t work out that way. At the end of university each drama student had to write and perform in a 15 minute show and so I wrote my first play The Wake. It went very well and in an extended form was selected for National Student Drama Festival. I thought everyone there would praise my incredible performance but instead they said they quite liked the script. There was no epiphany moment when I realised that writing was what I needed to do with my life, but it slowly dawned on me that that was the case. And here I am.


 What is Rotterdam about?

Rotterdam is a love story about a woman named Alice who has always identified as gay and her partner Fiona who reveals that he has always identified as male and wants to start living as a man named Adrian. It’s about how their relationship changes as they try to work out who they are themselves and how they reconcile their gender and sexual identities with their feelings for each other. (and it’s got jokes in).

What prompted you to write Rotterdam?

It was just one of those ideas that wouldn’t leave me. A friend of mine came out as trans many years ago and I’ve known other people who have been through experiences that have made them question their sexual identities. Fusing aspects of those two situations together just seemed like a really interesting way to explore questions about gender, sexuality and identity in an entertaining and dramatic way.


How did you research the play?

I started with first person accounts by trans people and their partners about their experiences of the transitioning process. For me, it was important to get to grips with the emotional truth of the situation rather than starting with more academic research. In particular there were some great video blogs on youtube made by trans people and a book called Queerly Beloved which is a funny, frank and warm account of a trans man and his lesbian partner’s experience of his transition. Once I’d done that and started thinking more about the story I then started to read around the issue and think about the play within a wider context. Having done that I approached trans friends to drafts, as well as organisations such as Gendered Intelligence, All About Trans and Trans Media Watch and through them I met several fantastic people whose feedback really helped me flesh out the story.

What’s the process been like getting the script to where it is today?

Long. I started a draft in 2011 but abandoned it, then started another in 2012 which I actually finished but I wasn’t happy with it so I put it in a drawer for two years. Eventually I came back to it and found the time away had given me the answers to a lot of my problems. A few drafts later, I did a reading at New Diorama Theatre and that was when I started to feel like it might be not terrible. A few months later Steve at Theatre503 read the latest draft and sent it to both Donnacadh O’Briain and Roy Williams. Roy selected it for his Playwrights Presents nigh t at Theatre503 and Donnacadh decided he wanted to direct a production of it.


Why did you choose to set the play in Rotterdam?
I knew I wanted the characters to be isolated. To take them away from a support base or community that they could look to for help. I don’t remembeer when I decided to set the play in Rotterdam but I do know that as soon as I had the idea I didn’t consider anything else. I lived in the Netherlands when I was growing up so I was very familiar with the culture, the people and what it’s like to be an ex-pat abroad. Once I’d made the decision it really helped to give the play a richness that it didn’t have before. And it gave me lots of ideas for jokes.

Why Theatre503?

I mean, that question does presuppose that a new writer has much power about where a play gets put on (we don’t) however if I had been able to choose, I would have picked 503 anyway. They gave me the seed commission to write the play in 2012 and have been such stalwart supporters of me for the last five years that I am really proud that the play is premiering there.

How are rehearsals going?

Fantastically. Great cast, great team, great process. It makes my life very easy


What do you hope audiences will take away from the show?

I hope that people will open themselves up to things they hadn’t considered before. I hope they engage with the questions about identity, gender and sexuality. I hope that they empathise with the characters and their predicaments and enjoy the story and nominate us all for awards. Mostly though, I hope that they laugh at the jokes.

Rotterdam plays at Theatre503  27 October – 21 November, 7.45pm (Sundays 5pm). Tickets are £15/£12 (Pay What You Can Sundays) and available online and by calling the Box Office.

Designer’s Diary – Valhalla

September 24th, 2015

Second in our Theatre503 Playwriting Award season is Valhalla by Paul Murphy, directed by highly acclaimed Jo McInnes.

The play is designed by Katie Lias. Here is what she had to say about the process she went through when designing the show:

‘My research began with photos of interrogation rooms as the play’s two characters constantly question each others motives, each shifting between interviewer and interviewee. There was something bare and clean about these spaces that reminded me of the very sleek, precise design of Scandinavian interiors, appropriate to the play’s Icelandic location. There was also a sense of claustrophobia within these small rooms, which I felt would portray a sense of their remoteness, both geographically and personally. The set evolved to become an amalgamation of an examination room and Scandinavian apartment, creating a simple, abstract space which allows the play’s dark and complex themes to breathe.’

Initial research         Colour Palette












You can catch this extraordinary play which questions the ethics of medical research, genetics and the endurance of human love at Theatre503 from 30th September to 24th October at 7.45pm (Sundays 5pm).

Tickets cost £15 for adults and £12 for concessions. On Sundays tickets are sold on a ‘Pay What You Can’ basis.  

Book your tickets here.

‘You know the words but when it comes to pain and fear and love we are a breed apart.’


‘Valhalla’ Twitter Q&A with playwright Paul Murphy

September 22nd, 2015

On 18th September our award-winning playwright and writer of Valhalla, Paul Murphy, took part in a short 140-character Q & A session on Twitter. Here are some of the highlights.

Theatre503 Playwriting Award, Jerwood Space, 29.11.14, courtesy of Alex Harvey-Brown 3








What was your first experience of theatre?

Probably an amateur dramatic production of An Inspector Calls in a Church Hall.

Where is your favourite place to write?

Wherever there’s a desk, some peace and quiet and somewhere to charge my ipod.

Describe your first play in three words?

Sprawling Political Drama.

How did you celebrate your 503 Award Season win?

I took a nap. ( This is the truth )

Name a writer that inspires you.

So many, I’ll go with Bruce Robinson.

How did you research the subject matter of the play?

Just book research and some excellent BBC Horizon Documentaries.

Quote one of your favourite lines from the play.

“We’re all children of the dark.”

What makes Valhalla a pertinent piece of theatre?

By humans, for humans, about humans.

Finally, why should people come to see the play?

Two wonderful actors, beautifully directed on a superb set, with wonderful lighting and an amazing sound and video design stage managed with effortless precision.


Many thanks to Paul Murphy for being such a good sport for this Twitter question and answer session. Valhalla is on from 30 Sept – 24 October at Theatre 503.

Valhalla Assistant Director’s Diary: What makes a play stand out from 1600 submissions?

September 9th, 2015

Joint-winner of the Theatre503 Playwriting Award, Valhalla by Paul Murphy began rehearsals this week. In this blog post Assistant Director Tom Latter discusses his involvement with the play, going back to the very beginning…

I first read Valhalla towards the beginning of the selection process for the Theatre503 Playwriting Award. We were several weeks in and though I was thoroughly loving the task ahead, the novelty of reading several plays a day had started to rub off. All the plays had something in them: an interesting premise, some nice dialogue, a certain style or approach, but I had yet to read a stand-out piece of work. I remember my first impressions of Valhalla very well because I was so off the mark – “title a bit pretentious?”; “two unnamed characters, a bit lazy perhaps”; “100 pages of sparse dialogue, could be a tough read” etc… Such unfair thoughts gradually shifted to “this could be quite good actually”, through “there’s more going on here than I thought” and finally “wow, this is brilliant”.


And it really is. It has a seemingly simple premise – a couple arguing over their past, present and future – but beneath the surface there are deeper ideas at work. How far can you go to save a person? Is there a limit to what love can conquer? Can you really trust even those closest to you? And can you recover if the very fabric of your being, your DNA, your humanity, was pushed, stretched, smashed to pieces?

Part of the play’s brilliance is that it won’t be for everyone. I championed this play all the way through and met many like-minded readers who loved it too, but we could also see the risks. For such a visionary piece, it is also vicious and uncompromising. It is complex and dark, has a singular style and presents an unflinching view of human nature that some may find difficult to witness.


Perhaps this is what made it stand out from the crowd of 1600 scripts – it is unconventional but totally honest. A similarity it shares with Theatre503, a venue not afraid to take risks on the new and unfamiliar. We are about to go into rehearsals and even we don’t know where we will be in 3 weeks time. It’s an exciting place to be, not knowing exactly what will happen next. But if you come to see it I can promise you this: expect to be moved, expect to think deeply, expect to have moral certainties challenged and ideas about theatre upended. I don’t expect you will all like it. All I’d say is you have to see it for yourself.


Valhalla plays at Theate503 from 30th September to 24th October. Tickets are £15, or £12 with concessions, and can be purchased here.

‘And Then Come The Nightjars’ Twitter Q&A with playwright Bea Roberts

August 20th, 2015

On 14th August our award-winning playwright and writer of And Then Come The Nightjars, Bea Roberts, took part in a short 140-character Q & A session on Twitter. Here are some of the highlights.

Screen Shot 2015-08-20 at 11.58.13








What was your first experience of theatre?

Panto at Theatre Royal Plymouth every year! Then Alex Jenning’s amazing Hamlet by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Still love both.

Where is your favourite place to write?

In my parents’ garden in Devon. So peaceful to sit and listen to the birds and bad WiFi signal means no distraction.

Describe your first play in three words?

‘Environmental’, ‘Pompous’, ‘Short’. I was only 11 though and I starred/wrote/directed. Terrible idea.

How did you celebrate your 503 Award Season win?

Guinness/crying profusely/Prosecco. I think the other people on the train home were a little baffled.

Name a writer that inspires you.

SO many. Dennis Kelly / Enda Walsh / Victoria Wood / David Greig / Billy Wilder / Eugene Ionesco / Terrence Rattigan.

In what ways has your background influenced your work?

Rural life is hugely underrepresented nationally so a non-chocolate box love of the countryside is big for me.

How was your community affected by the 2001 foot-and-mouth crisis?

South Devon was quite badly hit. A lot of local farms never restocked. Feels like it left scars everywhere.

How did you research the subject matter of the play?

I spoke to friends and family about their memories and my own, then lots of reading and scouring YouTube for clips.

Quote one of your favourite lines from the play.

“Nice having chickens clucking about the place, make it look a bit more Darling Buds of fucking May”

What makes And Then Come The Nightjars a pertinent piece of theatre?

It’s about how the past has shaped the present and where the countryside is going. Hopefully it’s impertinent too!

Finally, why should people come to see the play?

Because it’s got an incredible team behind it, a gurt big heart and a filthy laugh!


Many thanks to Bea Roberts for being such a good sport for this Twitter question and answer session. And Then Come The Nightjars is on from 2-26 Sept at Theatre 503 and from 6-17 Oct at Bristol Old Vic.