Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Clara Brennan: Spine

By | Published on Thursday 23 October 2014

This week at Soho Theatre, Londoners have the chance to see Clara Brennan’s Edinburgh Festival success story ‘Spine’, which won a Fringe First and a Herald Angel, and a Stage Award for Acting Excellence for its star Rosie Wyatt.


The play, described as a “pan-generational and heart-breaking call to arms for our modern age”, is a politically charged monologue, penned by an acclaimed writer with a Channel 4 Playwright Award under her belt. I spoke to Clara Brennan about the show.

CM: Without giving too much away, can you give us an idea of what ‘Spine’ is about?
CB: It’s about a fiery, disenfranchised teenage girl who meets her match in a fiery, funny and inspiring elderly woman – in many ways they’re each other’s last resort in life.

CM: What themes does the play cover? What it its political agenda?
CB: The play was inspired by the Coalition’s austerity measures and dismantling of public services. It looks at teenage engagement with politics and education, but told through a very street-level story about stolen library books, money lending, sex and burglary. It’s really about how people have been left out of politics and how our most vulnerable have been treated by the Coalition government – theft on quite another level. And I think the intergenerational friendship is a great way to have a dialogue about this.

CM: The play is a monologue, but features two main characters. What made you decide to write it as a one-person show, rather than a two-hander?
CB: Without giving too much away, it was important for me that Amy eventually embody Glenda. And we learn why she tells this story by the end. That’s the kernel of hope in the play (I hope!). It’s a classic mentor story – think ‘Karate Kid’, ‘Good Will Hunting’ – but with a major focus on two women’s experiences. And having a 2 in1 play makes us focus on the pan-generational themes, the ideas and jokes they share. Plus, it’s also fun to have a character impersonate another – the one stage direction I wrote was “Amy doesn’t have to be brilliant at mimicking Glenda but should enjoy doing it”. It tells us a lot about them both I think.

CM: Is a monologue easier to write than a ‘normal’ play, or harder?
CB: Hell no. It’s a major challenge sustaining an audience’s attention for an hour and ten minutes, it’s a feat for the actor and all involved. Rosie performs it like artillery fire, she’s incredible. I love monologue plays, they’re so exposing and emotionally engaging when done well and they have to be the moment when a character ‘must’ speak, in order for us to want to spend time with the character you have to come out fighting and desperate to speak. They intrigue me as a form. I just have to try really hard to keep my own and the audience’s attention with enough filth and gags and heart and guts as possible.

CM: Did you just hand the script over and bow out or have you been in attendance?
CB: I was in pre-Edinburgh rehearsals and the dress rehearsal yesterday, I’m always on hand and have done rewrites along the way. But I usually just sit there blubbing when I watch Rosie, I’m a useless teary mess by the end, crying at my own play! But I can’t help it, it means a lot to me.

CM: Did the play develop or change significantly during the rehearsal process?
CB: Oh yep. I’d happily go away and add in massive rewrites but at a certain point the actor and director own the play and can pull me aside to say “Mate, enough”, or “She wouldn’t say that”. It’s bliss to work with creatives who feel ownership of the text, I love the point at which it’s no longer me sat in my bedroom doing the voices, it’s 3D and has a life of its own. So it evolved hugely, and Beth Pitts, the director, has worked with me since it was a 15 minute play for Theatre Uncut. She has a brilliant structural eye and if wasn’t for her challenging me, the play wouldn’t exist.

CM: Rosie Wyatt’s performance was singled out for a Stage Award when the show was on at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. How did you go about casting the part, and what was it that made Ms Wyatt so right for this role?
CB: I saw her do a 15 minute reading of Spine when it was a mini play for Theatre Uncut. She had an hour’s rehearsal but she was electric. She’s got something as a performer I don’t see that often. I definitely wrote it with her voice in mind. And so I wondered if it was good enough if I could coax her to the Fringe… her agreeing to do it was a big deal for me!

CM: You’re one of the founders of Foolscap, the company behind this production – can you tell us something about the group, and its aims?
CB: It’s me, director Beth Pitts and producer Francesca Moody. They’re very inspiring and work insanely hard, so their reputations preceded them and we suddenly made a naughty little trio. We scrambled around pre-Edinburgh and made up Foolscap with the aim of making politically engaging new work… hopefully on the back of the production we’ll get to continue! Maybe Amy needs a sequel.

CM: What’s next for you, and the company?
CB: We’re looking into touring the play, that was a goal of ours from its inception, and hopefully schools, libraries and maybe non-theatre venues, that’d be a dream. I want old and young audiences to see it together.

I have a few telly and film projects on the go and two new plays on in London early next year. I’d plug them but I’m well superstitious. And it looks like I’ll make ‘Spine’ for the screen, so the characters Amy portrays will finally come to life.

‘Spine’ is on at Soho Theatre until 2 Nov, see this page here for info and tickets.