Interview with Chip Shop Chips playwright Becky Prestwich

Becky Prestwich

What is Chip Shop Chips about?

After his father’s death, Eric, a 60 something drifter, has come home to re-open the family Chip Shop. He wants to re-vamp the place and turn it into the kind of trendy chippy that serves Halloumi as the veggie option. On the restaurant’s opening night, Eric’s childhood sweetheart, Christine, turns up. They haven’t seen each other in over 40 years. Christine’s a Grandma – and a widow now. Neither she nor Eric has lived the life they imagined they would, and she’s wondering if there’s still time for one last big romance… Alongside Christine and Eric, we see Lee and Jasmine – two eighteen year olds who may or may not be about to kiss for the first time. So, really it’s a play about memory and possibility and first love and nostalgia.

 Why Fish and Chips?

I think fish and chips are brilliant. They manage to be both totally ordinary and a treat at the same time – I guess because they’re cheap but bad for you. They’re also strangely wholesome – I feel much less guilty feeding my kids fish and chips than I would giving them a McDonalds. For most British people, fish and chips are rich in memories – sharing a bag of chips with your first boyfriend because you can’t afford to actually eat out or windswept, rainy holidays in the Lake District or the first night in a new house before you’ve unpacked the pots and pans. Fish and chips are about comfort and family. They conjure a kind of instant nostalgia – and that kind of nostalgia seems to be everywhere at the moment from retro beards to vintage everything. I thought a Chippy might be an interesting world through which to explore ideas about tradition and family, nostalgia and aspiration and how the world has changed (and how its stayed the same).

What inspired you to write this play?

The idea first came to me when I was pregnant. For the first few months of the pregnancy, I could only stomach chips and the occasional cheese sandwich. So, I was spending a lot of time in chip shops. And one night – before a Box of Tricks production actually – my husband and I ate at the Olympus Fish and Chip Shop opposite Bolton Octagon. I was immediately struck by what a fantastic place for people watching it was. It was a place where people come together. I liked the idea of the story playing out while the audience ate. And straight away, I knew it would be a story about family and falling in love.

 How does the play fit in with your previous work?

I write about food a lot. I come from the kind of family where if someone is feeling low, you offer them a sandwich. So, this play definitely connects with that. I’m also really interested in every day drama, stories that seem small but which are somehow exploring what it means to be alive and part of society. Also, I used to work in the participation team of a theatre and I think this play connects to that – I wanted to write something that anyone could come and see and enjoy, including people who might never normally dream of stepping inside a theatre. It was important to me that the play felt truthful and was about lots of memories of fish and chips, not just my own, so we worked with community groups and youth theatres from both the Bolton Octagon and the Royal Exchange as part of the development of the play.

 What do you hope audiences will get from watching the play?

Well, Eric fancies himself as a bit of a showman and he is determined that everyone is going to have a good night. So, there’s a quiz, a bit of Northern Soul and some terrible fish puns. Alongside that, you’ll have these two love stories unfolding, which will hopefully capture something of what it feels like to be young and falling in love for the first time. I hope audiences have a good night out and come away with a full heart. And you get to eat chips.

How did you get into writing?

My Mum’s a writer and for years, that made me very determined not to be one. I saw myself as a creative person and just doing what my Mum did for a living didn’t seem to be a very creative choice. I worked for a long time as the Young People’s Programme Leader at the Royal Exchange. It was an absolutely brilliant job. It was incredibly rewarding and creative and I learnt a lot about how theatre works from my time there. But I couldn’t resist writing. I wrote bits for the young people I worked with and in my spare time, I wrote for myself too. I sent my first full length play to Box of Tricks Theatre and loved the experience of seeing something I’d written come to life on stage. So, I kept writing. I did more theatre projects, including more work with Box of Tricks and I also started engaging with the Writersroom at the BBC which got me into writing for radio and then TV. Eventually, I realised it was time to leave my job and admit that I was a writer whether I liked it or not.

How does it feel to see your work on the stage?

I write a bit for telly and for radio too and it is always a revelation to see what actors can bring to a script. But there is something uniquely brilliant about being in an audience, and seeing and feeling people around you respond to something you’ve created. It’s magical when the audience laugh in places you hadn’t anticipated or gasp at something you didn’t realise was quite that shocking. It’s also completely and utterly terrifying and with theatre the fear never quite lifts because even if the audience clapped last night, tonight they might hate it. But that’s the risk you have to take. My favourite bit is afterwards if you overhear the audience talking about what they’d have done in that situation or reminiscing about a similar story from their own lives – that’s what you’re looking for, to create something that connects.

 How involved are you in your plays?

This was a fantastic process because it was very collaborative from the outset. I went to Box of Tricks with the seed of an idea and we worked on building the world together. Even so, I still feel that when the final draft is in – you are kind of done. I like to be around rehearsals, partly because it is a genuine joy to watch actors work their magic, but I think there’s a point where you have to step back and let other people own your script. It’s good to be there to facilitate the process – to tweak anything that isn’t working and to answer any questions but often I think the answers I have are less interesting than the answers the rest of the creative team go on to discover for themselves.

Which playwrights inspired you?

I saw my first Chekhov’s The Seagull as a teenager and have never got over it –Chekhov writes real people who are funny and flawed and heart-breaking and for me, that’s the holy grail. It’s also difficult to be a Mancunian playwright and not be inspired by Simon Stephens.

 What do you hope Box of Tricks will bring to your play?

I love working with Box of Tricks. Adam directed the first full length play that I wrote and they’re a fantastic company for new writers. They care about every word of your play as much as you do.  They’re also a company who care deeply about their audiences –and about finding the right way for an audience to experience each play. When I first talked to them about Chip Shop Chips I didn’t know quite what I wanted the play to be, they immediately saw the potential for a tour to unusual venues, engaging new audiences.  They also have a real knack for bringing together talented people – they always find the actors and creatives who will really get your play.

What was the best bit of advice you were given when you started out?

It isn’t really advice about writing directly but… As a person, I’m not great at going outside of my comfort zone and as I got older and started having to take part in more grown up, social activities against my will, my Mum would say to me, ‘it’s all good copy, darling’. I think there is something in that… We get a bit obsessed with this idea of writers as reclusive artists – tucked away reading plays and working on their craft, but really for me being a writer isn’t about language, it’s about understanding and empathising with people – trying to get inside what makes them tick. To do that you have to properly engage with the world – even if on one level, you’d rather be at home reading a book.

Why should people come and see the play

People should come and see the play for a good night out. Hopefully there are moments which will make you think but ultimately this is a warm-hearted play which will leave you with a full belly and a bit of a smile.

What is next for you?

I’m working on a new theatre project called the Girl from Ward Four. It’s about a teenage girl who is in recovery from anorexia, who falls in love with a boy she meets at a Child and Adolescent Mental Health unit. So, another love story – and in a way another play about food too.

Finally two very important questions –

 Where is your favourite fish and chip shop?

It has to be the chip shop down the end of my road – it’s less than 2 minutes from my front door. Life-saver.

What is your favourite sauce to go on your chips?

I like chips with salt, vinegar, mushy peas and absolutely nothing else. For me, putting ketchup on proper chip shop chips is sacrilegious.

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