"I was the most beautiful child. Everyone always told me how much potential I had"
Jelly Beans won unanimous critical acclaim and played to sold out audiences every night. This provocative work from Kuleshov Theatre was on this May at Theatre 503, Battersea.
Jelly Beans was Dan Pick’s playwrighting debut, which he directed too. We caught up with Dan to get his thoughts about the central messages of the play and what he hoped people would take away from seeing it.
Dan, what is Jelly Beans and who is it for?
Jelly Beans is a monologue. It tells first-hand the story of the worst day imaginable in a young man’s life. I wrote the play for Adam Harley, an extraordinary actor with whom I’ve worked many times in the past. It’s a play for a generation who feel trapped and frustrated at times. It’s something I set out to do for my ex-girlfriend, Florence, who fought a hard battle with my depression and anxiety.
You wrote the play about a man from a generation that is, in your words, "riddled with debt, anxiety and depression". What message does the play have for people who identify with this diagnosis?
Jelly Beans is really a cautionary tale. The character’s initial response to threat is to play dead - to lie there, in his words, “wondering how long I can keep my eyes shut for”. When he does eventually fight back against the world, the result - for him and those close to him - is catastrophic. The play is about taking action but warns against taking the wrong kind of action. Terrified of what he sees as a vision of himself in the future - a vision that’s so far from what he always dreamed he’d be - the character commits a brutal crime of passion. In a sense he ends up destroying that image and himself at once. I guess the message, particularly for young men - who are as bombarded as young women are with unrealistic impressions of perfection - is not to let it get to you. Talk. Get help. Have a dialogue with the people you love and trust. We’re all in this together. Taking on the world alone can be dangerous.
What do you think the protagonist would tell his younger self, if he could?
There’s a brilliant line in Stuart Slade’s last play, BU21, which I had the wonderful opportunity of directing at Theatre503: “One day things are going to turn to shit for you, for one reason or another. And how are you going to cope with it? Will you boss it like a boss? Or are you going to cave in like a f**ktard?” I think what Stuart so delicately articulates is that it’s the choices we make in times of great hardship that define us as people.
Do you think young Londoners have a right to feel pessimistic? Politically and socially we have been accused of being a pretty apathetic bunch - do you think we deserve our rotten luck?
We should only feel pessimistic if we continue to refuse political responsibility. Personally, I’m encouraged by the election of Sadiq Khan as mayor. I think it demonstrates a collective refusal to be drawn into the politics of fear. We need to question everything, particularly the messages we receive in the media and the motives of the people who create narratives for us about the world we live in. Slavoj Žižek speaks so articulately on the question of ‘What is freedom today?’ I’d urge anyone with an interest to watch that video.
What do you hope people will take away from seeing Jelly Beans?
It’s always difficult to predict how people will receive a play like this. I hope people have a good night. I hope they laugh. I guess if people leave the theatre having seen something they recognise - something that gets them thinking about their own relationship with the world - we’ve done the job.
Jelly Beans comes from Kuleshov Theatre which has produced a lot of darkly comedic work recently. What's motivating you to make such bleak yet provocative theatre?
I think there’s great conflict in dark comedy. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Maybe that’s a fair and honest reflection of the world we live in. I shouldn’t speak for Stuart, but until now he’s written everything we’ve produced. I think Stuart might tell you that people go to the theatre to deal with the really massive things - love, death, the threat of terrorism, abuse - and you need a little relief in there or an audience is simply battered into submission by the end of an evening. In the darkness those little moments of light shine even more brightly.
What niche in British theatre does your work fill?
We’re a very actor-centric company. We tend to write parts for specific performers with whom we want to work. It’s very important to us that there’s a strong sense of shared ownership. We play a lot. So much of our rehearsal process involves improvisation and game playing. Stuart and I simply offer parameters for those games and respond to the actors’ work. I’m probably describing a common practice so I wonder if we could call ourselves ‘niche’. We hope to write good parts for great actors in work that reflects the state of the world around us.
What's next for Kuleshov?
There are talks of a BU21 transfer. I can’t say where or when but the prospect is very exciting. Today, though, I’m absolutely buzzing - I’m in the process of reading the first draft of Stuart’s new play.