Amelia Bullmore tells us about writing Di and Viv and Rose.
Di and Viv and Rose was first published in 2011, however it charts nearly three decades in its narrative. When did you start writing this play and how many iterations did you make to get here?
I started writing it in 2009/10. I’ve just dug out my notebook. I must have done quite a lot of thinking before I started the notebook as it’s all basically there on the first few pages. On page one I wasn’t sure how old to take the characters. A crossed out question suggests 70. Another crossed out idea suggests having each actress the age of her character’s prime – 20, 40, 70. I think there were three drafts and tinkering after that. Charlie originally appeared on a series of answerphone messages. The scene at Little Kimble station was only written after the first production. The director’s agent said ‘There’s a scene missing and we want more Rose’. It quickly seemed clear what was required.
I knew from the very start that the play would take the friends over several decades. By the time I wrote it (in my mid forties) I was beginning to understand the joy and significance of long-lasting female friendship and my aim was to try and catch that.
You attended Manchester University – are there any similarities between the experiences of your three protagonists and your own?
I used physical details. The hall of residence I lived in in my first year had painted breeze blocks and a pay phone in the hall (I know that doesn’t exactly single it out). The canteen in the Students Union did have approximately tribal tables. There was a boy who did Art History who wore plus fours but I never knew him well enough to establish if they were storage. I lived in a modern flat, not a house, but any fool can see the comic possibilities of a hatch – it’s effectively a puppet theatre. There’s an area of Manchester called Rusholme (now nicknamed The Curry Mile) where a stretch of road is lined with Indian restaurants and grocers. I had travelled in India in my year off and was thrilled to be able to buy coriander, fenugreek, oily toovar dal etc. Lots of us thrilled to it. Madhur Jaffrey remains a god. My world view expanded immeasurably while I was at university, because of the people I met. We all cycled everywhere, always. When I had the idea for the play I was working in New York so it was not hard to write Viv’s love affair with New York.
Can you tell us about the origin of the name Mossbank?
Mossbank sounds like a Victorian street in a Northern city. There were student houses in Manchester on Daisybank Rd and the flat I lived in was near Mosside, so I think I must have fused the two. I wanted a street name that would become totemic to the heroines and Mossbank has a good ring to it. ‘We are Mossbank’, ‘This is Mossbank’.
My favourite line in the play is:
‘I used to think growing up together meant you just happened to shoot upwards alongside certain people but now I think the way you shoot up – the shape you shoot up in – is contingent on a few people shooting up with you.’
Can you tell us how you came up with this concept?
This line took shape following a conversation with a friend whose best friend had died suddenly. She spoke of this tacit contract undertaken – that you will grow up together – and shape each other as you do. She was talking about something I understood but she crystallised it.
What is your favourite line in the play?
I have to admit I am a shameless laugher at my own jokes. I never knew if ‘Yes, and I think you’re a silly bar of soap yourself’ would get a laugh and I was delighted when it did. I always, always laugh at the quick exchange at the beginning of the last scene when it turns out Elaine is fat and the dogs are dead. Ditto, when Viv sits on the chair she has raged about and says ‘comfortable’. Simple pleasures. Another line I particularly like is in Rose’s description of how she feels after sex. ‘Heavy and light’ doesn’t seem to make sense, but I think it’s right.
You’ve created three very dissimilar female characters. Viv is your most politicised character, but in many ways Rose (whose sexual liberation is considered to be anti-feminist by Viv) is quite empowered. Can you tell us a bit about how you shaped these characters in terms of their feminist agendas?
Only Viv has a consciously feminist agenda. She is alert to inequality, patriarchy and chauvinism. Rose is blessed with un- self-consciousness and Di is blessed with security. Initially that’s all that dictates how those two move through the world. Viv has a plan and a rigid dogma because she’s young and it’s a refuge from other difficulties, such as love. Rose’s actions may appear sexually empowered but her motivation is simply pleasure. Taking pleasure in life may also be Rose’s response to the pain of life. Di will get a feminist education in survival from Elaine, as well Viv. My feminist agenda dictated that they ALL had to be funny, have interesting minds and show resilience in their own ways. I was more concerned with writing three female characters with differing temperamental, psychological and emotional tendencies – traits which in combination constitute a formidable whole – than I was in defining them according to their feminist agendas.
Viv’s character is determined to smash the patriarchy. You’ve had a wonderful career as an actor and writer – do you feel you still have to fight for career opportunities because of your gender more than your male counterparts?
No, I don’t feel this – that I’ve had to fight because of my gender, though inequality does persist – I know female actors are, still, often paid less than their male counterparts. My own experience of the industry has been that it’s very female. I’ve worked with lots of women directors, producers, script editors, co-writers. There’s a strong tradition of women writers in the UK. I have been very lucky to combine acting and writing as I have.
Your play begins in 1983 at a time in Northern England where cities were on the verge of bankruptcy and the HIV/AIDs crisis was rife. How does your characters’ environment influence their decisions?
It is hyper-vigilant Viv, of course, who is conscious of AIDS. She’s informed and politicised. I know a lot of students are, and were – especially in the 80s. Equally, the young are very tied up with being young – their world, their people, their experiences. I did not contextualise the characters much. It would have felt a bit bolted-on for me to tackle global events – and something of a lie – because really the globe I was curious about was the bubble of these three. And I know my limits. I am better at people than The World. The strongest effect their environment has on them, initially, is that it’s one without parental scrutiny. Di can be gay, Rose can sleep with fields of boys and Viv can streak up the ladder of learning towards success and recognition. Charlie’s purchase of Mossbank in the 1980s is in line with the start of the trend for buy-to-let at that time, and without him buying them a house, the trio may never have forged the way they do. That’s a kind of micro environmental influence.
Di and Viv and Rose tells the story of three women who build a life-long alliance. Female friendship is at the core of this work. It’s potentially similar to the ‘sisterhood’ story that often comes up in film and television. However, there’s something raw and visceral about this trio’s connection, despite their personality differences. Does your play aim to subvert the ‘female friendship’ trope?
I’m so happy you asked this. There is a school of writing about female friendship which I call (to myself) ‘White wine and Chocolate’. You know. Heart to hearts, hugs and learning, exchange of homilies – not enough jokes, not enough wit, not enough salt. Too pink. We had so many discussions about pink. It was not to appear on the poster. At the time all the ‘chick lit’ and ‘chick flick’ publicity material was pink. Lots of writing about female friendship is now far from pink. This play is all about love but I really tried to steer clear of sentimentality. Viv’s deeds are ferociously loving – barricading Mossbank, tearing into those she feels have let Rose down, exhorting Di to cathartic rage – but they are not soft or sweet. Rose has a genuinely benign outlook on life (until Di’s disaster rocks her) but she’s too earthy to be insipid. And Di is heroic to me because she is the steady bridge between the more polarised Rose and Viv – without her they would never live together, without her the story wouldn’t happen. There have been three productions of the play in London and the same actress, Tamzin Outhwaite, played Di every time. This strikes me as very Di. She was great to start with but she just got better and better as she dropped deeper roots into the character over the years. If you can make a character say a touching thing in a joke or a rant, or wrapped in pain, it is less cloying than it being just a baldly ‘touching’ line. Once in a while, of course, nothing’s finer than a baldly touching line. It’s a question of taste and knowing your preferred seasoning. Mine is warmth without too much sugar, plenty of lemon, plenty of salt, and some chilli.
So often the ‘spark’ in stories is between the sexes and I wanted tons of spark without needing anyone other than our three. Weird as it sounds, I think of the last scene as two cowboys slugging it out on a hill. The fight is whether the friendship between these two women will live or die and Viv pulls out all the stops – stops she’s never been able to pull out before, stops she learnt to pull out because of Di and Rose – she opens up, she shares the joke of herself, she entertains, and re-recruits.
Did you expect this play to reach the West End and be produced all over the world? What has that experience been like for you as a writer?
No! I’m a fantasist so I can daydream lots of amazing things but this is crucially different from expectation. I never expected the West End and I never expected it would be produced in different countries. It amazes me and I feel very grateful to the people who pick it up and want to do it. This play was turned down by many theatres before it got on. The director, Anna Mackmin, worked tirelessly searching for a home. Hampstead Downstairs eventually took it. They paid me £500 for the play and it was performed to 80 odd people a night and no press attended. (The theatre capacity downstairs is 80 odd and the policy there is no press). The stage area was so small the actors could barely get the bikes through the doors. The front row basically had their feet in Mossbank. It was wonderful.
Amelia Bullmore’s Di and Viv and Rose plays at Southbank Theatre from 12 August.