Interview: new playwright Alison Evans

Tom Wicker speaks with first-time playwright Alison Evans about her controversial debut, The Supper Party.

The Supper Party is a darkly comic exploration of media exploitation and cultural hypocrisy in an age when parents will sign away their children’s lives for fame in print or on TV. Directed by Eleanor Teasdale, it is on at the Old Sorting Office Community Arts Centre, Barnes, from 16 to 21 April.

Emma Vansittart (Johnny English Reborn, RSC) stars as the hostess who watches her supper party descend into a horror show as her guests – including a historian and a novelist – humiliate and degrade each other, driven by self-interest and self-denial.

The cast also includes Rachel Henley (Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) as a young actress introduced over the course of the evening to the sleazy reality of her profession; and Sara Dee (Kill List, Sightseers) as a columnist who has built her success on the ruins of her family life.

Two weeks before press night, I spoke with Alison Evans about what inspired her debut play, its controversial nature and why the London Fringe has been the perfect place to launch her writing career.

What led you to write The Supper Party?

I read an article about a playwright, obviously written by a friend, which presented quite a creepy picture of the people that used to come to the house. That triggered my imagination about what it would be like to be there for an evening. This dovetailed with an idea I’d been sitting on for some time, about a columnist who exploits her family and friends in the type of domestic column that’s so prevalent these days.

The dinner party set-up has featured in many famous plays and films. Do you think it’s useful for presenting a microcosm of society?

Originally it was going to be around a table but I realised that was going to be difficult stage-wise! So now, it’s a supper party, like Abigail’s Party, with people wandering around – a group of people all of whom have their own interests and relate differently with each other. The playwright and the journalist are each exploiting someone; and everyone is projecting their fantasies on to each other. It’s an old-fashioned satire, really, and I don’t think there are that many about.

How did you decide who would be invited to the party?

Based on the article, I realised that the playwright’s friends would be likely to include actors and writers. And the playwright, the historian, the journalist and the novelist all articulate an argument in the play about whether truth can be found in fact or fiction. Of course, as we learn, it lies in both.

What would you say are the play’s main themes?

It’s really a satire on the media and modern journalism, which the historian calls the new opiate of the masses, like religion once was. The journalist started out writing serious pieces but her main thing is now a domestic column. So, in part, the play explores the damage she has done to the people around her and to everyone who consumes this stuff.

Do you mention the phone-hacking scandal or the Leveson Inquiry?

No, people have asked about that, but I wanted to steer clear of anything too specific. I’m presenting a microcosm of society so I don’t want people to come away thinking that the play is about a particular incident. I don’t want them to be blinded to the broader issues I’m addressing.

Isn’t there something ironic about setting a play looking at the exploitation of personal lives at a private supper party?

There’s certainly an irony to the fact that, in some ways, I’m doing what I criticise the journalist and the playwright for doing: I’m going near to real people’s lives or using certain recognisable types in order to entertain audiences. But I’m doing it to make them think. Of course, this goes back a long way: Tolstoy’s wife got fed up of him exploiting his family life!

The press release describes the play as “controversial”. How so?

I got a lot of interest from a couple of theatres but they didn’t really do anything. And I showed it to one potential producer, who said: ‘No one’s going to touch this’. There are two reasons. The first is that there are potentially recognisable scenarios and individuals, although they are composites of several people. We live in a litigious age with a lot of cautiousness about that sort of thing. Certainly, I have been told that I might be open to legal action by putting on the play.

What is the second reason?

The age-of-consent element, which explores the hypocrisy surrounding child abuse as it relates to the journalist’s 15-year-old son. There has been an incident between him and an older man but he was already sexually active and has also had his life exploited by his mother in her column. We recognise that sex abuse of children is a terrible thing; but as a society we are happy to watch a reality TV show where someone shoves a camera in a child’s face while he’s crying. The mother may have signed a consent form but, to me, that is also a form of abuse. There are all sorts of murky areas in that respect.

You eventually found at home for the play at the OSO Arts Centre. Do you think that fringe venues are more receptive to taking risks?

I absolutely think that’s true. I’ve got a cast of nine professional actors and the word that has come back to me from all of them is that the most interesting stuff happens on the fringe.

What do you hope for the play in terms of immediate audience reaction and its longer-term future?

I hope that it will entertain people and make them laugh, but also give them food for thought – which any good dinner party should do! And the whole team is hoping that we’ll find the right place and the right producer to take it forward.

The Supper Party is on at the OSO Arts Centre from 16 to 21 April.

Alison Evans has a degree in Philosophy from UCL and an MA in Children’s Literature. Since completing a creative writing course she has written three stage plays and is currently working on the script for a six part TV drama series. 

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