How a Corbyn-supporting playwright is set to take centre stage in Islington
Up until 2003, positioned halfway up Upper Street in the London borough of Islington was New Labour’s most famous restaurant.
Political legend has Granita as the venue where Tony Blair and Gordon Brown thrashed out the deal that would see the former run for the Labour leadership following the shock death of John Smith in 1994.
Granita shut more than a decade ago and these days Islington is better know as Jeremy Corbyn's home turf. The boundary of Cobyn's constituency is half a mile north of where Granita once was. Meanwhile if you head just a few steps down the the popular north London street, navigating a middle-class haven of bespoke coffee shops and high-brow chain restaurants, then you quickly encounter the Almeida Theatre.
From April, the Almeida will be home to a new play by Sheffield-born playwright, Leo Butler. And it just so happens that Butler is less of a Blairite and more of a Corbynista, coughing up £3 to vote for the veteran in the leadership election.
“It was so exciting last summer when that happened,” he says as we meet in the bar at the theatre, just opening up to the public on a balmy March day.
“The openness and the sincerity he has – he really cares about ordinary people – is something that’s been lacking.”
Butler, 42, is no stranger to London’s vibrant theatre scene. He has lived in the capital for 20 years and his tomes have graced the stages at the National Theatre, Royal Court Theatre and the Tricycle Theatre, among others.
He spent nine years as playwriting tutor for the Royal Court Young Writers programme until 2014. His plays focus on social and political issues, including a 2008 piece on the financial crisis.
His latest offering, Boy, follows a day in the life of 17-year-old Londoner ‘Liam’, casting an eye over the impact of austerity on Britain’s youth, how society treats its young people, alongside the government’s approach to the poor and the impact of gentrification.
The play’s origins stem from seeing the same teenager, usually unaccompanied, looking for things to do around South East London. The image of this unnamed person stood in a crowded bus stop in 2011, head bowed, kicked into gear Butler’s new production.
It builds on his 2001 show Redundant, winner of the George Devine Award, about a young woman living in poverty in Sheffield, with one key distinction.
“She was almost conscious of her situation, the sense of injustice that things haven’t worked out for her, whereas Liam he is not conscious of that. This is how it is. And he’s not a happy character, he’s disadvantaged, he’s hungry, he’s disadvantaged in so many ways, but he’s not conscious of that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just the way it is,” he explains.
Boy features a large cast – an unusual feature for one of Butler’s plays. Drawing inspiration from, among others, 70s classic Taxi Driver, Butler was keen to explore one character “manoeuvring themselves through the world”, while the focus remains primarily on the central figure.
A sizeable ensemble helps drive the narrative of isolation, as Liam wonders across the capital unnoticed by the masses who collectively draw conclusions about him based on societal stereotypes, he says.
He has no particular skills, nor is he a criminal, but Boy focuses on one unremarkable teenager’s grapple to flourish in contemporary society.
Butler’s initial optimism about Corbyn’s stewardship of Labour has waned somewhat in recent months. Not due to the fault of Corbyn himself, however, but from a fear of the Conservatives’ ruthless approach to disassembling Labour leaders and disunity among the PLP, something he is keen to see resolved.
“I feel quite worried actually the Conservatives are very clever and they have a big machine behind them. And the worry is within the Labour party as well, it would be nice if you saw the rest of the Labour party get behind him and support him. That whole vote on Syria was just embarrassing. But I think people underestimate him. I think general, ordinary people really do connect and would be willing to vote for him,” he says.
Butler is softly spoken and highly amiable company. He is also scathing about the David Cameron and George Osborne’s approach to those from a less fortunate socio-economic groups.
“The picture that’s painted [by the Tories] is you’ve created your circumstances willingly and the state has no responsibility for that. We’re all in the same boat,” he ventures.
“I’m probably not being very articulate. This is probably something more I feel and I can that’s why I write plays to try and put my thoughts into something more articulate. But yes, I think there’s an absolute disregard be that for kids, or disabled, or struggling families… I guess it comes out of the Thatcherite policies of the 80s to sort of reward the affluent.
“I really think the people in government just have no connection whatsoever, have no experience, no connection to people who are living on the bread line. That’s the refreshing thing about Corbyn.”
After a brief hiatus, Butler relishes the return of plays about the working class, which is reflective of the current “climate”, after a period of the subject matter being perceived as “going back to the 80s somehow”.
He believes theatre can be a powerful mechanism through which to put forward a political message, which though may not directly influence policy, can alter perceptions. But his plays are not didactic, he insists.
“"I feel a sense of responsibility to put these people on stage because otherwise why write? It doesn’t interest me to just write about a character’s relationship or a comedy for the sake of doing a comedy. Making an audience uncomfortable sometimes, making an audience think differently.
"I think the distance is especially important because of all the bad press that the working class or the underprivileged have had to make people think differently about kids, any kind of kids. That’s important to me."
Boy is running at the Almeida Theatre between 5 April – 28 May. Look out for a Total Politics review of the play on the site soon.