There are a lot of ways you could weigh up new artistic director Madani Younis’ programme at Bush Theatre. Some regard the appointment of a young, northern Asian as a sign that the profile of theatre is moving on, and his programming has come under scrutiny. But there’s no pleasing everyone and he is undeniably preparing his audience for something varied. He has women talking about strip clubs in 2011 and romance in 1945, then he has a Palestinian/Israeli company exploring the story of Abraham, before Gbolahan Obisesan looks at the gap between generations, and filmmaker Dominic Savage makes his stage debut with a contemplative study on the consequences of a robbery.
But he begins his inaugural season with a play about family, written by a man, featuring a close-knit group of women. After 30 seconds on the phone with Lee Mattinson, it’s clear why this playwright is the one to introduce audiences to Younis’ style of programming. Lee is immediately open, he’s funny, he’s casual, he’s welcoming and he’s very aware of the things people don’t say.
His appreciation for the occasions when people do come clean explains the setting of his play, Chalet Lines, which sees the Walker family on holiday in Butlins, where they’ve put smiles on faces since 1936.
They’ve also unwittingly been turning family holidays into pressure cookers since about then too, and Lee uses the altered dynamics that occur when we go on holiday to point at our limits. “This holiday becomes a stepping stone,” he says. “It’s not just a pause from life, this is a breaking point. Things have been boiling under the surface and something has to change.”
His story looks at the relationships between women whose ideas on men may seem a little stifled amidst the packaged progress of the 21st century. “Men,” he says, “don’t come across too well to be honest. But it’s about how some women design themselves around men and how some people are still taught to do that, to think that when they find a man they’ll be complete.”
It dwells on a paradox in the West where we officially laud an independent lifestyle but simultaneously, “if you haven’t found someone you’re deemed socially weird, aren’t you. Some people would rather see you in a loveless marriage than see you with a cat. Oh god,” he says remembering he’s never met me, “you’re not sat there with a cat are you?” Thankfully no. My cat is at home with the ferrets.
He also looks at the unthinking cruelty we inflict on each other and over the course of this conversation, Lee does that fantastically blunt and brilliantly casual thing of explaining a point by relating a fictional conversation in his Geordie lilt. “You know when people are vile to you but they’re like, ‘I’m just looking our for you’ and it’s like, ‘well, actually you’ve just said a really nasty thing’ and they’re like, ‘well I’m just telling you you’re fat for you’re own good’, and you’re like, ‘no you’re not, you’re just being a wanker’. When that’s constant, it slowly breaks you down and one day you’ll snap.”
“There is that worry,” he continues, “that the audience will look at these characters and go ‘aw bless them, they’re from the North’. I was conscious of that when I was re-writing some parts. The original ending I had was, well, I suppose it was quite a camp ending but kind of a joyous one as well. But we didn’t want people to think, ‘oh life might be hard but everything will be fine ‘cos they can just go to Greggs and get a pasty’. We didn’t want to feed into those perceptions that people sometimes have about northerners.”
There is then, an awareness from both Lee and Madani Younis, who is directing this production himself, that while the profile of theatre is indeed moving on, there is still a gap between the immediate opinions we so readily act on and the views we dare to express.
Chalet Lines ran at Bush Theatre from 6th April until 5th May 2011.