Bow playwright Simon Stephens on East London, the gentrification of bacon sarnies, and that Hot Priest
If Simon Stephens was a biscuit he would probably be a Wagon Wheel. He didn’t arrive at this conclusion lightly, and you have to say it’s a good fit. Unconventional, large in stature, and not necessarily a biscuit, Stephens’ plays have been seen by millions in theatres across the world. He’s one of the UK’s foremost playwrights, but it hasn’t gone to his head in the slightest.
Bow has been his home for over 20 years. Originally from Stockport, Stephens had stints in Edinburgh and north London before settling down in Bow in June of 1998. He and his wife, Polly, were about to have their first child and wanted to raise it in the right setting. North London was beautiful, but it didn’t always feel fully lived in.
In the years before moving to Bow, Stephens rented a room in Islington, round the corner from Tony Blair before he moved to Downing Street. ‘I remember going for walks and never seeing anybody, and being daunted by the beauty of the fruit bowls in the windows in the basement kitchens in Islington, and of looking down thinking, “Jesus, look at those fruit bowls they’re exquisite.” They seemed more a demonstration of wealth than actual fruit for people to eat.’
The fruit bowls are for eating round these parts. Stephens clicked with the area immediately. ‘East London was the first bit of London that reminded me a little of Edinburgh,’ he says. ‘The compactness, the tension between history and modernity, I guess the possibility of community.
‘Moving to the East End it was the first time we got this sense of people talking to you at bus stops that we would get in Edinburgh all the time, or going into shops and people talking to you. It stuck. Stephens and his family (he has three children now and a whole lot of pets) are still here today.
‘I absolutely love it,’ he says. ‘More than I think of home as being Stockport or Manchester, I think of it as being East London.’
The area has changed massively during his time here. We meet at the Pavilion cafe in Victoria Park on an altogether idyllic morning. The fountain in the lake was even making a rainbow.
‘I think you can measure the gentrification here using the bacon sarnies,’ Stephens says. When he first moved to the area the sandwiches at the Pavilion were made with sliced white bread and margarine and tomato ketchup and watery bacon, and cost around 90p. They’re more upmarket these days, for better or worse.
Stephens himself has marked a kind of evolution in the area’s makeup, or rather, his son Oscar has. The family were regulars at the playground when the kids were younger. ‘Just after he was born, we’d call out “Oscar” and get about ten people turning around looking at us thinking what the fuck have you called your child? Then within about five years we’d call out “Oscar” and about seven of the children would turn their heads.’
Stephens laughs at the memory. He is expressive and open, though he arranges his words carefully, as playwrights are probably wont to do. He’ll poke fun, but he’s no cynic. The buzz that drew Stephens to the East End is going strong in both its old and new elements.
He was a huge fan of Gary Arber’s printing shop on Roman Road, which closed in 2014 after 117 years in business. ‘It was such a gorgeous shop to go into,’ Stephens says. ‘It was like a shop from a kid’s story, piles and piles of papers and books and all kinds of things, and he was the only person in the world who knew where anything was. He could get you anything within five seconds of asking.
‘It was a beautiful place. I miss it.’
Not that some of the newer kids on the block haven’t risen to the occasion. Should you wander down the Roman there’s a good chance you’ll see Stephens and his black Cockapoo, Gilbert, in a certain blue-fronted cafe. ‘I’m really, really keen on Mae + Harvey,’ he says. ‘It terms of food it’s absolutely magic, it’s a smashing little atmosphere.’ Being an altogether sensible fellow, he is also keen on their Taco Tuesdays.
It’s obvious as we talk that Stephens draws a lot of strength from the area, usually via walks. Gilbert is with him when we meet. They see a lot of East London together. ‘We walk in Bow Cemetery every day, and it’s exquisite. It’s a beautiful space that cuts to the quick of the natural beauty of the East End, and the history of the place as well.’
Walks are important to Stephen’s creative process, though not of the dog variety. The walks with Gilbert are for him behaving as a human rather than as an artist. ‘The walking I do when I’m writing is more about exploring a space,’ he says.
Randomised walks have been a growing interest of his. He recently recruited Karl Hyde, a founding member of the electronic group Underworld, in a little experiment. Stephens printed out a map of Bow, traced Hyde’s hand over the top of it, and followed the route as best he could. ‘I walked Carl Hyde’s hand around my home neighbourhood,’ he says, delighted.
‘You see things you wouldn’t ordinarily see.’ He traces the route in the air as he talks. ‘When we go to our neighbourhoods we go to places we go to all the time. We become so familiar with what we’re looking at that we stop seeing it.’ If you see Stephens walk to the end of a street then turn around and walk back the way he came, he’s probably on a hand route.
Little experiments like that keep Stephens fresh, alert to the details of a neighbourhood where there are always things to discover. This keen outward-looking streak extends to his passion for education. Stephens comes from a family of teachers. Indeed, he was one for a short while before he became a playwright full time.
When his children were still at Chisenhale School, he ran playwriting workshops with year six students then got professional actors like Tom Sturridge, Arthur Darvill, and Jessica Raine to come in and perform their plays. ‘That was always one of the highlights of my year, it was absolutely thrilling.’
Nowadays Stephens visits school often. He wants to show students what an artist looks like, that making a living as a creative is possible. ‘I think kids don’t feel entitled to think of themselves as possibly being artists, because they’ve never met artists,’ Stephens says. ‘They might have met taxi drivers or bankers or shopkeepers or doctors, so those are the jobs they think are realistic.’
For each visit he sits down he tells the children to ask him anything they want, and that he will answer honestly. This, happily, leads to plenty of thoughtful conversations, as well as few deceptively deep funny questions. One of these concerned biscuits. After Stephens introduced himself to a class in Doncaster a girl shot her hand up and asked: If you were a biscuit what biscuit would you be?
Stephens, to his eternal shame, originally answered with his favourite biscuit. (Fox’s chocolate chip cookies with extra chocolate on the bottom.) It was only some soul-searching that he settled on the real answer. ‘I’m a big person, oversized. I’m a playwright so it’s a culturally marginal profession, and even as a playwright my plays can be quite dark or violent or strange – not to everybody’s taste.
‘So what’s oversized and not really to everybody’s taste? I decided I would probably be a Wagon Wheel.’ He laughs. ‘Is it even a biscuit? A cake? I don’t know. I think that’s part of why it’s the right answer.’
The next time he was in Doncaster he made sure the girl was informed of his new answer. Now she knows, and he knows too.
Stephens is under no illusions that his visits will entirely shake off the idea that theatre is a niche club. ‘The older I get the more reconciled I am to the fact no matter how hard we try to interrogate that assumption, it’s gonna kind of be there. Theatre is never gonna be like gaming or cinema or football in terms of its reach. It’s always a bit odd.’ It’s about showing what’s possible, what our futures can look like. There are fruit bowls and then there are fruit bowls.
As a politically engaged playwright, Stephens is also acutely aware of the benefits of creativity in the context of an uncertain future for the UK.
‘I think the skills that a country will need to thrive in that position will be communication, collaboration, imagination,’ he says. ‘We need to be able to talk to one another better, we need to be able to collaborate more, and we need to imagine possibilities, and all of those skills will come from an arts training. On every level it’s important work.’
The work never slips from Stephen’s focus. He’s had plays on Broadway, worked with the likes of Andrew Scott (as in Moriarty and more recently ‘that’ Hot Priest) and Jarvis Cocker, and his award-winning adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time won the Olivier Award for Best New Play and ran at the National Theatre from 2012 to 2019. But it’s all part of the gig to him. Success isn’t something to be taken too seriously, not least by the successful. That’s what he hopes to share.
‘If I’ve learned anything in life it’s that we learn fuck all from success. Success doesn’t teach us anything. The only thing experience we learn from is failure. I’m not saying everybody should fail, but nobody should be afraid of failure.
‘If you’re afraid of failure, if you aspire to succeed, the best you’ll do in your life is be very, very good. If you’re unafraid of failure, if you can look failure in the eye and say, “Come on then, bring it on. Let’s see what happens,” you might be extraordinary.’
If you enjoyed this piece you may like reading our interview with Bow’s queen of colour, Sue Kreitzman
Please support local journalism.
As a not-for-profit media organisation using constructive journalism to strengthen communities, we have not put our digital content behind a paywall or subscription fee as we think the benefits of an independent, local publication should be available to everyone living in our area.
We are powered by members. Hundreds of members have already joined. Become a member to donate as little as £3 per month to support constructive journalism and the local community.