Attitude’s editor Matthew Todd chats to Tom Wells, the author of Jumpers For Goalposts, the best play about a gay relationship since Beautiful Thing – read our five star review here.
How are you feeling about the success of Jumpers For Goalposts?
I’m really delighted. I think we’re all really proud of it, it feels like a proper team effort. When we were in rehearsals it wasn’t ready. The actors took a bit of a punt on it and also brought a lot of themselves to it. It was rewritten a lot during rehearsals and James the director really helped me shape it. It’s really nice that it’s about a team – I think that’s all that anyone wants, a team. It’s lovely that it’s found a space in London where it can settle down. The actors seem to be having fun, which is good as it would be horrible if it was really bleak and it was all my fault!
You’ve said you’re more drawn to plays that radiate warmth rather than drain an audience. It’s relatively rare to see that with a play about gay relationships.
Some people are really ready to see the darker side of stuff but there are 15-year-olds who really need to understand that things can be OK. The love story is really important but also the group of friends is important. I didn’t realise that existed. I thought that it was just about one person by themselves. But it’s maybe not the first relationship that changes how you feel about being gay; it’s that first group of supportive mates you make. That was a bit of a revelation for me because I always thought people were on their own. Maybe it was because I didn’t watch telly, I just read books and most of them were written in the ’50s [Laughs].
There seems to be a bit of cynicism about theatre which features gay characters. It’s great that it’s so un-self-conscious, it feels fresh.
I wrote a play with a gay character who got dumped and someone said, “Oh, what’s great about it is that it’s not, like, a
gay story” – but he is gay! They just seem relieved. I was a little bit put out about it.
What is your idea of a gay story?
You just write what you need to write. I wrote a play about four straight characters and one gay character, no one ever asks me, “Why have you written a play with four straight characters?” But with this they do, they say, “OK, so it’s a bit awkward, why have you written a play with four gay characters?” [laughs] I don’t know… I just did. They’re just characters that are interesting. I didn’t see a rom-com when I was growing up where I didn’t have to pretend one of them was me to make it relevant to my life. I know they exist [gay rom-coms] but there are not many.
Where do you come from and how did you become a playwright?
I was born in York and I grew up near Hull. I did a playwriting course at West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2007, then went to Paines Plough [Theatre company] for a year – they took six new writers on, gave us free tickets and train tickets so we could see loads of plays. Then I started writing and got the commission for this. My first play went on a tour; the Bush Theatre [in London] saw it and commissioned the play The Kitchen Sink. I wasn’t that interested in theatre. It was a happy accident that I got there and loved it.
One of the characters in Jumpers For Goalposts has been beaten up because he was gay and you had the same thing happen to you, didn’t you?
I was quite lucky, it could have been worse; it was cuts and bruises. I was wearing a hat that they said was gay. It was right outside my house, the contract was nearly up and so I left. Some of them beat me up and some of them intervened to stop them, which I think is worth remembering.
How did it affect the writing of the play?
It fed into it, it makes you a little bit more articulate. The character of Beardy was always going to be beaten up but it gave me more confidence in how to write it. Getting over it does take a bit longer than you would think. I felt really surprised that it happened.
It’s very moving that it makes Beardy want to play at [the play’s fictional football club] Hull Pride because of it, as a protest.
I think we should have respect for people who helped us get where we are today. It’s a history you don’t get taught in schools. But it’s really important that it isn’t taken for granted. I think Britain should be more proud that we’ve often been at the forefront of a movement for equality. America is proud of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. Maybe it’s a British thing to be down on your heroes but we should embrace the fact that people stood up. There’s a film coming out called Pride about the solidarity between the miners and the gay community during the miners’ strike. It sounds great because it’s about the grass roots which were really scruffy and that enables people to just join in.
I really love that there is just a very gentle love story at the heart of the play. Why did you want to do that?
The easiest way to make dramas, it seems, is to go to extremes, but most people just plod along. My friends just have ordinary lives and within that there are moments of elation and genuine struggle. I’m quite observational I think, I don’t observe many massive, epic things.
It’s very rare to see the romantic side of gay relationships portrayed on stage and in TV.
I’ve not got a telly, so I don’t know [Laughs]. I’ve got a laptop though. There’s a real bias towards sex, people think that’s a connection that’s love, but it’s not. Love is just bumbling along, really fancying someone for a couple of months, getting really pissed and trying to snog them, and that’s very human. When straight people come to see the play I think they are surprised that they take something from it – and that’s not their fault. People don’t realize what an absence there is. Gay characters are always successful and confident and I’m none of those things! There’s a pressure to conform to a lifestyle. That’s not just gay people, it’s everyone, but people would be a bit happier if they set their own standards.
Jumpers For Goalposts is on at the Bush Theatre, Shepherds Bush, London until 4th January. Go and see it or you will miss out on something very special. www.bushtheatre.co.uk