David Eldridge: Interview

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Time Out chats to young playwright David Eldridge about market life in the 1980s – the subject of his latest play

  • When David Eldridge was in his teens, he divided his time between attending a posh independent school in Essex and working at Romford market. One taught him how to pass exams, the other how to survive on the street. It was a schizophrenic existence that has provided rich pickings for his career as a playwright. The market has already featured glancingly in Eldridge’s previous play ‘M.A.D.’, but in ‘Market Boy’, it takes central stage at the National Theatre, the perfect metaphor for the Thatcher years. ‘That was the point,’ Eldridge explains, ‘when Magaret was telling us that we all ought to be living in the market place. Also, Romford sees itself as the capital of Essex. And Essex felt as though it was the engine room for the ’80s.’

    His market career began by packing in and packing out while he studied the art of selling shoes and the art of the wind-up from his mentor and confidant, the magnetically attractive Trevor. ‘I was shy to begin with,’ Eldridge recalls. ‘I was very gauche. You just have to fail a lot at first. Before you know it, you find you’re making a woman twice your age blush and you’ve sold her a pair of fur-trimmed diamanté boots as well.’
    That gift of the gab must have helped when Eldridge left home to study drama at Exeter University. Improvisation held no fears. Eldridge credits his professor, Peter Thomson, with giving him the confidence to write his first play. When I ask Thomson what he saw in him, he recalls, ‘Even when he tried to act like an actor, he acted like a playwright. He was always trying to own the words, rather than parroting them. And he was very quick to learn that a real writer not only writes, but rewrites.’

    Eldridge wrote ‘Serving it Up’ (1996), an angry play set in the East End, when he was just 22. ‘Summer Begins’ (1997), ‘Under the Blue Sky’ (2000, a Time Out Live Awards-winner) and ‘Incomplete and Random Acts of Kindness’ (2005) followed. Politics have always been important but obliquely so in his plays. For some, ‘M.A.D’, seen at The Bush in 2004, was a moving family drama, but it was inspired by the Iraq war and Bush’s desire for vengeance after September 11. The anticipation was so great before it opened that other theatres circled around like vultures. At the same time, friends were telling Eldridge that he was crazy to try and make a play out of Thomas Vinterberg’s cult film ‘Festen’. In the end, ‘M.A.D.’ didn’t have the long life that everyone expected, and ‘Festen’ went on to become one of the big hits of the year, moving from the Almeida into the West End. Now, in another reversal of fortunes, ‘Festen’ has just opened to poor reviews on Broadway. It’s lucky for Eldridge and director Rufus Norris that they have had no time to get gloomy, flying straight back here after the opening night to start work on ‘Market Boy’ in the Olivier.

    The big stage allows the market to be shown onstage in all its hectic variety as the play moves from the boom of the late ’80s to the recession of the early ’90s. There was an element of racism, Eldridge agrees, although less aggressively so than in the East End. ‘There’s a lot of racism in the culture. But it’s very much on the level of “That Alan. He’s alright, ain’t he? He’s black, but he’s alright.” ’ Asked about crime, Eldridge replies: ‘There was a little bit of that. It was a market, Jane.’

    Whatever the reality, it was a wonderfully glamorous environment for a young boy to grow up in. ‘We were the more famous boys on the market because we were Trevor’s boys. It was a really loud, fun time with Rick Astley wacking out on the stereo. Big shoulder pads, high heels and big hair.’ He continues, ‘Something that really interests Rufus and me is how to tell a story that’s absolutely subjective, seen through the eyes of a kid growing into a young man. Once you’re into someone’s subjective perception of a place, then it’s great fun because anything can happen theatrically. It’s a piece that’s much closer to the spirit of Rufus’s previous productions of “Sleeping Beauty” and “Tintin” than a ’70s Royal Court workplay.’

    The play is the first by a young playwright (Eldridge is 32) to be produced in the Olivier since Nicholas Hytner took over as artistic director. That’s a heavy responsibility, Eldridge admits: ‘Apart from personal reasons, I do hope that the show goes relatively well. I don’t want to become a stick with which to beat other writers of my generation.’

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Mihaly Mok
Mihaly Mok

I wish I could learn more about his (Mr Eldridge's) latest thoughts of the scenes of FESTEN .Pls let me know whether I can type my words directly to him by sending me a proper e-mail or a Royal Mail Address of his. Yours Faithfully, Mihaly Mok, Budapest - Hungary