Britain’s most-talked-about young playwright has two loves – the theatre and shopping! David Johns caught up with Rachel De-lahay as she searched for a new dress in Birmingham’s city centre stores
Rachel De-lahay sounds more than a little irritated. “I love this dress,” she says holding a particularly fetching summer piece in her hand, “but they haven’t got my size! Really, really annoying or what!!” I try to sympathise but what can you say? It’s a whole new experience for me – I can’t say that I’ve ever done an interview before with someone as they’re actually shopping. Twenty minutes later and the must-have dress is a distant memory as Britain’s Most Promising Playwright of the Year has flitted from shop to shop in Birmingham city centre before finding something even better. “And it fits,” she declares triumphantly having tried it for size just in case. Fashion sorted, now it’s a dash to the Apple store to try and get her iPhone fixed. “It just exploded on me,” Rachel explains as a hapless assistant tries to work it out.
And there in a microcosm of two paragraphs is the life of Ms De-lahay… full on, everything done on the go, loads to pack in and really not enough time to do it. Thank goodness then for the little ‘magic’ notebook. Rachel carries it everywhere she goes and whips it out to jot down anything which she thinks might come in handy in her writing at a later date. “I’ll be walking along and see something or someone which I think looks different or interesting and pop it in the book. It’s the only way to remember things that could be useful in helping create a storyline, a character or a line in a script.” Before you get the impression that Rachel’s just a little eccentric for a 30-year-old, let’s make it clear she most definitely is not. What she is, is hugely creative and talented. And much of the drama she creates for stage and, moving forward, television comes from acute observation and her years growing up in Birmingham. Rachel was born in Handsworth and brought up by her mother Kerry who is a nurse at City Hospital. She went to King Edward School for Girls. Her first experience of the stage was when she was aged nine in Christmas Carol at Birmingham Rep. (She recently revisited the Rep with her new play Circles, which is a story based on characters riding on the Number 11 bus around the city.) While her family weren’t theatregoers, Rachel got the bug enough to spend every Sunday in Cannon Hill Park with the Stage2 Youth Theatre.
While her love of theatre was definitely formed in Brum, Rachel is quick to acknowledge London’s Royal Court Theatre for turning her into a writer. “I spotted a writing course there and moved down more in hope than any certainty that it would work out.” Supported by Arts Council funding, she learned her craft while making ends meet as a shop assistant. Her big break came when the Royal Court decided to produce her first play called The Westbridge in 2011 which looked at violence on the streets of South London. Much of the detail was actually adapted on the race riots in Handsworth in 2005 – a particularly dark period in the city’s history. Since then Rachel’s work has earned her a clutch of impressive accolades including Most Promising Playwright at the Evening Standard Awards, Writers Guild Award for Best Play and Screen International Star of Tomorrow for her debut film script for Film4. She has also been dubbed the ‘queen of cool’ by The Independent. All of which is very nice but not what it’s all about for Rachel. “Sure it’s great to know that other people appreciate what you’re doing and nice to be recognised. Most important though is that it helps me move forward in what I want to achieve with my writing.”
As well as penning a film script, Rachel is busy talking to the likes of the BBC and Channel 4 about creating projects for TV. “You can’t take away the importance of seeing something live, but writing for TV opens up a huge audience for a playwright. It’s something I absolutely want to break into. But I like to do both. “There’s a reason why people pay £100 a ticket to see drama live when they could go out and buy it for £12 on DVD. I’ve been fortunate so far that my work has been in smaller venues, so the creative pressure of keeping millions of people happy hasn’t been there. The trick is to write for a bigger audience but not dilute what you are saying or the message you are getting across.” So, exactly how does a Rachel De-lahay play start out in life? “Sometimes it comes out of my little notebook if the idea still appeals. I normally go to whoever I am writing for and tell them what I’m interested in writing about. There’s a belief that I can do what I say I want to do, so they’ll go with it. Obviously I have to fit into their timeframe and window too, but I can’t guarantee an absolute fixed time because a project could take a few weeks or a year. I like to have full control over my time. I like to hand in a project when I am happy with it. “The first draft is when I put down what’s really a load of vomit on paper, lots of ideas and thoughts, to try and make sense of. It’s very free, and as the story unfolds I’ll then rewrite things. Then if I think it’s rubbish, I’ll go through and rewrite again until it’s right. You have to put a lot of thought into the writing but also the structure of what you are doing so it will work on a stage, in a theatre.”
CRIME OF PASSION
Her last play, Circles which the critics loved, centred on a violent relationship, and Rachel’s plot for her film script called Pretty has a similar focus. It is based on a crime of passion involving a girl Rachel went to school with who killed her love because she felt betrayed. Do we detect a common theme here? “I guess I do write a lot about people who find themselves in hopeless, often violent situations. It’s just what fascinates me. Taking characters and developing them so they are not always as they seem. Lots of twists and turns. I like to see how audiences react to them.” All the evidence is that theatregoers and critics alike are enthralled by Rachel’s brilliant concepts, scripts and characterisations. Birmingham is blessed with a writer who appears destined to become on the modern greats.