Chris Bush: ‘If it feels more like sport than theatre, we’ve missed the point’

·6-min read
‘I feel that all theatre can only ever operate with a certain degree of blind faith,’ says Bush  (Chris Saunders)
‘I feel that all theatre can only ever operate with a certain degree of blind faith,’ says Bush (Chris Saunders)

Is Chris Bush the busiest playwright in Britain? When she walked into the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield last month, her name was practically wallpaper. On the poster for the current season, there were three shows to her name: her boundary-pushing new project Rock/Paper/Scissors, the touring production of her musical Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World and the return of Standing at the Sky’s Edge, another musical with Richard Hawley, next Christmas. The last spot went to a production of Much Ado About Nothing. Bush quips: “Who wrote that? Nobody knows.”

Bush has been an in-demand playwright and artistic director since her 2007 runaway Edinburgh Fringe hit Tony! The Blair Musical (not to be confused with Harry Hill’s similarly titled but inferior show). This, however, is certainly her busiest work period to date. In April, the 35-year-old opened a version of Jane Eyre in Scarborough, while Fantastically Great Women tours the country. Her play Hungry for Paines Plough will be debuting at Soho Theatre in July, and she’s reimagined Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle as The Doncastrian Chalk Circle in collaboration with the National Theatre later this summer. And I thought my Love Island viewing schedule was frantic.

“I’m not prepared to compromise on the amount of work I want to take on and I’m not prepared to compromise on quality, so I just compromise on sleep,” she jokes.

If there’s a headline act, though, it’s Rock/Paper/Scissors. To mark the 50th anniversary of Sheffield Theatres, Bush’s native city, she’s penned a trilogy of plays (because when you’re already snowed under, why not make things triple as hard?). Each one is separate, but interwoven: all three shows are staged at the same time and share a cast, with the actors running between spaces and plays. It’s an incredible technical feat and Bush tells me over Zoom from a break in rehearsals that she’s been far more involved than she normally would at this stage. “A rewrite in a normal process would only be for story, for character, for clarity,” she points out. “[Here], you all need to be in the right places so until that foundation feels really solid, you can’t go all that far.”

The “audacious” concept was pitched to Bush first, leading her to search for a fitting triptych to bring to life. Other three-part lists considered included red, white and blue, and work, rest and play – although, Bush points out, a play called “work” might have been a hard sell. Rock, paper, scissors, in comparison, felt more balanced: “It’s about three equal forces, where everyone comes out on top, [but] there’s always a winner.” Scissors also had a connection to Sheffield, due to the city’s industrial old scissor factory buildings. The idea that emerged was for three intergenerational dramas, playing with the idea that “we’re all the hero in our own story, but actually, we all have the capacity to be antagonists somewhere else, sometimes without even knowing it”.

The promotional material around Rock/Paper/Scissors has largely focused on this conceit rather than the content of the individual plays. How do you prevent them from being overshadowed by what some may see as a gimmick? It’s a question Bush “totally understands” – after all, “the technical audacity of it was our route into it as well”. “These are plays that are fundamentally about heritage,” she says. “I think these are stories that are in some ways exploring who gets what… If they work, they’ll work because they’re good stories. They won’t work because people are in the right place.” Ultimately, she says, “if it feels more like sport than theatre, then we’ve sort of just slightly missed the point”.

Fortunately, evidence would suggest Bush knows how to tell a good story. Take Fantastically Great Women. Based on a popular children’s book by Kate Pankhurst, a descendant of suffragette Emmeline, it tells the stories of inspirational women from history. A criticism that’s often levied against this subgenre of feminist children’s literature is that it neutralises the women mentioned (in 2017, the book Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls was derided online for including Margaret Thatcher among its “extraordinary women”). Bush says she was careful to show these women as they truly are – rather than “two-dimensional, primary colours, hashtag girlboss” characters. “We can have a very quiet moment of waiting on a bench with Rosa Parks, singing a lullaby,” she says. “I know that I’m going to have five-year-olds in the audience who are going to be a bit fidgety at this point, and some of that’s going to go over their heads, but hopefully there’s been enough for them that far.”

Fantastically Great Women is a brightly coloured family show, with Six-esque pop songs as well as slower moments. I ask Bush about the challenges of writing for children and adults. “Actually, I think the challenge isn’t writing something that a six-year-old and an adult can enjoy, it’s writing something that a six-year-old and a 12-year-old can enjoy,” she says. “That’s where the perspective shifts and what seems enchanting to an eight-year-old seems deeply uncool to a 15-year-old.”

The pandemic is partly responsible for Bush’s non-stop schedule. Things that were meant to be staged back in 2020 are finally being put on alongside her new projects. By the end of the year, she estimates she’ll have opened eight shows, “which is slightly insane and I’m privileged to be able to do that. I don’t take it for granted at all. But god, I do need a break”.

The most exciting thing, she says, is knowing that that hunger for theatre is still there after such a long period of industry uncertainty. “I think there is still some caution from a lot of audiences, going, ‘How safe do we feel going back into those shared spaces,’” she says.

“[But] when people are excited by a show, there absolutely is still an appetite for it… I feel that all theatre can only ever operate with a certain degree of blind faith. If you waited until you know for certain that everything’s going to be alright, you’d never make any shows ever.” She points to Sheffield as an example of theatres that can and should “take risks on new work. It’s not a safer or more conservative programme than it would have been five years ago”. They’re still getting bums on seats – even if the actors have to run to another one in the second act.

‘Rock/Paper/Scissors’ run at Sheffield’s Crucible, Studio and Lyceum theatres until 2 July. ‘Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World’ is at Stratford East until 17 July.

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