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Interview: (Brit)Pop’ing all the way to Berlin

Writer Holly Whinney on new play Berlin

Not only do we love theatre here at ET, but many of our team also love live music. So how could we not be interested in a show centred around a 90s Britpop band? Ok, the show is obviously much more than just that, but hey, it got our attention which is a good start.

Holly Whinney’s Berlin brings together the remaining members of that Britpop band as they try to deal with the death of their lead singer. It’s a dark comedy exploring grief, toxic masculinity and betrayal. It plays at Etcetera Theatre as part of Camden Fringe between 23 – 27 August (more information here).

We couldn’t resist wanting to know more, so we dug out our best 90s band t-shirt, put Oasis on the stereo (no streaming for us) and sat down with Holly to ask some questions.

Berlin features an imaginary 90s Britpop band, what made you decide on that era and music? Were you a 90s groupie at all?

Britpop was definitely a massive influence on me when I was younger. I have very fond memories of being in my dad’s van on the way to a B&Q with Cigarettes and Alcohol blasting so loud! I was only about 6 at the time but, the first time I heard the opening to that song (blatantly T-Rex) I knew that it was the coolest thing ever and I had to learn guitar and all I wanted to be was Noel Gallagher. My taste has changed more with age and I’m really starting to believe that the coolest person was  Jarvis Cocker and because of this I now have several tweed jackets and chunky glasses due to him.

Did you have any real bands in mind as you were writing the play?

The [untitled] band that is depicted was never massive during their heyday – they sold a lot of records of course but, they were never at the level of Oasis or Blur – when I described the band to the actors during an early rehearsal I said Pulp. If you were to pin the band down to a culture reference purely on popularity at the time it would be them.

The idea of the play came after reading a passage from Peter Hook’s book Substance which looks into New Order and him navigating a post-Joy Division world. Within the book he writes two lists: ‘Ten things you should always do when you form a group’ and, ‘Ten things you should never do when you form a group.’ These two lists really formed the gem behind Berlin. They were both contrary to one another – one list said to work with your mates and the said never work with your mates as you won’t stay mates. I also reflected on the passage on Ian Curtis where Peter Hook mentions that the band ‘never talked about it [Ian’s suicide] in depth. Never analysed any of it.’ Instead, they made jokes and ‘pithy’ comments and ‘never confronted the grief’. This was where I started to write the play. It’s since developed and grown into something completely different and by no means am I trying to represent New Order.

Can we expect a nice 90s soundtrack to go along with the play?

Can’t afford the rights. So, instead a very good friend of mine, Tara, does the music for the show with her band, The Ramshackles – the opening guitar to Wasteland has some slight Champagne Supernova vibes which is spot on for us.

I also thought it best to avoid any direct links to Britpop bands as I didn’t want spectators to be taken out of the experience by thinking what a ‘tune’ or walk out because they prefer Blur. Or, they are like my mum, and hate everything Britpop – bar Pulp of course.

There doesn’t feel to be too many plays based around bands, and yet it would seem a rich tapestry to explore – do you feel there are reasons we don’t see more plays like this?

I don’t have a clue why the premise of a band is not used a lot. I agree, I think you have so much to play with that it seems a waste. Maybe it is because of the element of music that would potentially need to be composed? But play concepts and settings and themes come in waves. With a post-covid and an inevitable recession, creatives will set their work in one location (as in one room) with fewer characters as it is more cost effective. So, maybe we will see more plays based in one location with only four characters becoming more mainstream over the next year or so and with that maybe more plays about bands.

The band members reunite in a Berlin studio, what was the appeal of sending them all the way to Berlin then?

Berlin is a really interesting place when considering the landscape of music and specifically the studio that influenced the production, Hansa Studios. It use to be a concert hall for the Nazis, not that that effects the story at all but, it complements the idea of the past and present being deeply intertwined within the fabric of Berlin. Berlin is this bohemian hub where artists, whether musical or writers such Christopher Isherwood, go to really focus on their work. I think the symbiosis of the past and present there really stimulates the brain and is such an alluring bait for a creative.

A big example of this is Bowie. He famously left LA where he was living of red peppers, milk and cocaine and headed to West Berlin with Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. The idea was for him to step away from the drug scene of LA and cut entirely …so, he moved to the Heroin capital of the world in the 1970s. I always liked the irony that came with that. But, with him moving to Berlin you have others that follow such as Nick Cave who did the same in the 1980s. This is why I believe the characters and the band head to Berlin. To get their spark back or, at least this is what Nick thinks. Nick is the character that brings the band together – he just wants his mates to get along but doesn’t know how to make this happen – so, he decides to do a rehearsal in their old studio in Berlin. In my head Hansa Studio was THE recording studio for them. They followed their heroes to this mecha of a musical holy land. However, it was an artificial move at the time – they had to do this because that’s what Bowie did – or, it’s like The Beatles going to India. They feel obliged to go to a different country … but, it doesn’t change them or the course of history. It’s similar to someone deciding to up sticks and move to a different country – they believe the country they have left was the problem but after a few years they move elsewhere because they are unsatisfied – they are just running away from themselves and not addressing their own personal issues.

So, the setting of Berlin is a combination of history being part of the fabric of the present city but, also an element of the pastiche of a creative running from their problems. This theme of running away from problems or diverting the real issue is a big theme within the production so, Berlin works very well as a setting for this theme to materialise on a symbolic level.

The play looks at, amongst other things, toxic masculinity, do you feel the 90s Britpop and lad culture that went around it makes it perfect for those themes?

Absolutely! I don’t at all think Liam Gallagher would be shouting this off the rooftops – he would just say they were in the late 20s – cigarettes and alcohol is what it’s about! And of course, Britpop was mainly fuelled by the media and then the Blair campaign. However, if you reflect on Britpop and a lot of cultures before this and after – Toxic Masculinity is a big theme within the subculture. The feuds of Blur and Oasis and the bullying of Robbie Williams and singing about getting drunk and high and starting fights with the press and one of the Gallaghers saying Sting is a wet wipe because he just cries in a corner are all examples of this. However, internally a lot of bands don’t get on – The Who famously didn’t get on at all. Liam Gallagher threw a plum or some form of fruit at Noel before a Paris gig and Noel walked out and quit. I think the idea of a ‘Rock ‘N Roll’ lifestyle is the demise of bands and what it means to be a quote-on-quote man.

However, with the idea of ‘Lad Culture’ it comes with a far heavier weight than just some band members throwing various pieces of fruit at each other. You have sport, mainly football, with an idolisation of violence against opposing teams as demonstrated in films such as The Firm and Green Street. You have binge drinking, smoking like a chimney and quite an archaic interpretation of Manhood.

With this play, they are all ‘Lads’ within their own right – but they have to grow out of this phase and deal with responsibility. One of them is going through a divorce and cannot come to terms with this – it is not until the final part of the play where we learn of this. This character is the last ‘Lad’ of the group – he is trying to hold onto the past and puts it on a pedestal of being drunk, smoking in the studio and rocking up on cocaine. But he can’t do that all the time – he has responsibility.

You also look at grief and betrayal, what is it about these subjects that made you want to delve deeper into them?

The subject matter of grief and betrayal seems to saturate the theatrical market however, on the other hand, there are far fewer productions which deal with it in a comedic light. Or, if they do, it can verge on the farcical. My objective with this production when it came to those themes was to be open with the reality of death and coping with this. The characters poke fun at each other and have a joke – they talk of Harry [the lead singer that committed suicide] as if he was just away on his holidays. They are very funny characters. I always found it strange going to wakes and no one really was crying but instead you had my Uncle Tappy and Malcom having a few beers and maybe a cigarette. They would check on the relatives but quite soon they would be joking about and chatting about music or talking about plans for the Farnham Beer Exhibition. However, by doing this they are not addressing the elephant in the room, and they are not grieving in a healthy and safe manner. This is where the frustration comes from and, out of that, anger and hate.

Yet, this production does not only explore the idea of grief in the mortal sense. It also looks at the grief of a relationship, getting divorced – going from being a full time parent to barely seeing your child. It looks into the grief of not being able to do what you like as it destroys you – as demonstrated with Nick and his addiction to alcohol.

It is a very open and brutal examination on grief and what it does to you. How grieving a person you are very close to can tear you up inside and make you angry. But, this play is exploring grief when the person commited suicide – you constantly reflect and get angry at yourself wondering if you could have done anything! Some people try and pin the blame on others, which is what Ben does, and this turns him into a dreadful human being.

Have you put on a show at Camden Fringe before? And how important are festivals such as this for writers like yourself?

This is my first time at the Camden Fringe – it’s really exciting! And yes, these sorts of festivals are so important for writers! And down to one pretty simple reason…economics. I’ve spent countless nights submitting my work to new writing venues and always receive the email “unfortunately we cannot take your work at the moment – we wish you all the best in your writing journey.” So, either you give up or realise thousands of people are applying to those venues thus, your chances are so slim! However, how many people would be like “you know what, screw it, this is good – it is going on and I will finance it myself.” That is why Camden Fringe is so good – it is just a buzz of loads and loads of creatives doing what they love and producing what they want with no check list and pressure from the top executives! It’s so liberating!

It is a showcase of talent and really it’s only about the art! It doesn’t matter if your show is not profiting thousands (yes, that would be nice) but, that is not the objective. The objective is putting on a great play that says something about the world we live in – and showing it to people of Camden!

Any other Camden Fringe recommendations you can put our way?

Everything looks so good! I haven’t had time yet to go through the online brochure yet – but, everything looks brilliant from what I’ve seen posted on Instagram.

And to wrap things up, give us a last pitch as to why we should all be heading into the moshpit at Etcetera Theatre to catch Berlin?

It’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you cry. It is a venue on top of a pub and on at 21:30 during the weekday and 17:30 weekends so a perfect way to finish off a night in Camden!

Our thanks to Holly for a wonderful insight into her play. You can catch Berlin when it comes to Etcetera Theatre 23 – 27 August as part of Camden Fringe. Further information and bookings can be found here.

Note that the show starts at 9.30 all nights except 27 August (5.30pm), so why not take advantage of seeing two shows in one evening? There are a host of shows playing at both the Etcetera Theatre and others nearby, check the Camden Fringe website for more information.

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