Writing ‘The Poisoners’ Pact’ – Writer’s Blog

Writing ‘The Poisoners’ Pact’ – Writer’s Blog

When Cordelia asked me if I was interested in co-writing a play with her I damn near bit her hand off. I’ve always found the work of Stuff of Dreams consistently outstanding and very much in tune with my own ideas about what makes good and exciting drama. I’d already contributed songs for “Love Left Hanging” and “Bricks of Burston” but here was an opportunity to be involved right from the start of a project.

One of the things I really love about theatre is its co-operative nature and the way that an idea goes through so many different hands before the final product goes in front of an audience. The playwright has an idea and writes a script, the director takes the script and interprets that idea maybe adding some of their own, the actors bring their own take and the director works with them and their ideas, technical crew and musicians and costume and set designers add their own notions to the mix and so on. The point I’m making is that even in the most dictatorial set-up (and Stuff of Dreams are decidedly NOT of such a stripe) a play is a thing made by a consensus of like-minded individuals and when it works well it’s an extraordinary thing to find oneself a part of.

With the Poisoners Pact Cords and I seem to find a consensus almost instantly. We agreed from the start that it was very clear from the evidence that Kat Frary and Fanny Billings were guilty as sin. How then should we approach the story? It seems the interesting question was that of motive; what makes two working class women embark on such an enterprise? We decided that Kat would be defiantly evil and that Fanny would be evil in a utilitarian sort of way. We wrote character profiles, settled on the idea of telling the story chronologically but with some songs and anachronistic direct to audience sections modelled on a kind of housewives general interest TV programme and started writing.

The interesting thing was the way these ideas developed and changed through the writing process. As the characters found their way onto the page their characters grew and took on personalities, motivations and histories. They demanded reasons for their actions that went beyond just being nasty self-serving villains. Their strengths and weaknesses became apparent as did the foundations of their relationship. Elizabeth Southgate demanded that her part in the story should be told as did Hannah Shorten. After a while we also realised that it was in part the story of the relationship between these two women and how it changed as events unfolded.

Another interesting thing for me is the way that that some of the ideas that make the play work were not consciously intentional at the outset. I’ve found this in the past; you think you’re making one thing but, on reflection it turns out that it’s also something else. Looking at the finished piece, and having revised it to some extent for the autumn tour as well as talking to the audience, I’m struck by a couple of things: I like the tension created by the fact that Kat and Fanny are tremendously sympathetic characters who did really terrible things. I also like the way we made them sympathetic by writing them almost as a classic straight man/funny man comedy duo for much of the play whilst maintaining the depth of character.

Anyway, the real joy was turning up to a rehearsal some weeks after the writing was done and seeing Jo, Kiara and Jamie make the words we’d written come alive. And then, because I was playing the music for the songs, seeing the finished thing going in front of an audience with the costumes and lights and knocking them dead. Which is what I mean about the co-operative nature of theatre.

So now Cords and I are working on something completely different, a cold-war, conspiracy theory spy story called Anglian Mist. Early signs are that the working relationship is as strong as ever so watch this space.

Tim Lane

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