Everyone can do with a few more laughs in exam term. With this in mind, I spoke to Henry Wilkinson, the writer and director of Whatever Happened To The Lead, to discuss his brand new play that runs at The Corpus Playroom this week.
What made you write the play?
I wrote the play last Christmas, partly as genuine creative endeavour (I’ve had most of the ideas for a couple of years) and partly as a massive form of procrastination. I’d spent about six or seven hours a day writing and editing it, pretending that I didn’t have holiday essays piling up each time I went on Hermes! It was just a really enjoyable thing to do – it was laborious but I never felt bored with these characters.
Who was your favourite character to write?
I loved writing the old ladies. Betty is this wonderfully scolding, bitter old woman. Imagine Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey, but more of a bitch!
What’s the play about?
It’s about a big shot actor who’s about to make a comeback and…well, I’ll say things don’t exactly go to plan.
Are you a big shot actor?
[He laughs] Absolutely not! No, I enjoy acting but I’m a bit of a dabbler. Directing is a new thing for me and I’ve learnt a lot – it’s definitely something I’d like to return to. Although theatre at Cambridge is full of opportunities to try new things, that’s where I’d like to go.
Is Cambridge full of opportunities for student writing?
Yeah, I think so. Obviously I’m approaching that question from the perspective of being lucky enough to have a show put on, but this city is full of ridiculously brilliant people and it’d be foolish not to showcase student talent. Last term you had The Other Line, Tom Stutchfield’s Horse is going to Edinburgh, The Last Hundred had people in tears. People are increasingly seeing student plays as things that don’t just have the potential to be ‘great student writing’ – they can be just great. I’m really pleased to be writing during a time where student writing is being so actively encouraged. Also, I’m a massive fan of the Playroom as a space to try out new writing and take a few risks.
Where have you drawn inspiration from?
Films mostly, which I suppose is weird for a play. I love older comedies like Airplane, Monty Python – anything just silly and slapstick! The Marx Brothers, for example, and the ‘60s as a decade definitely influenced me.
Are you more of a sixties or a teenies person?
He rather appropriately answers, ‘Oh God, is it called teenies?’
Yeah, I think so.
Well, in that case, I’m probably a ‘60s person! To be fair, I think there are some things that are just universally funny. I’m an ASNAC and (very occasionally!) there’ll be things written hundreds of years ago in a weird language that are still funny. I’m not saying I’ve created an immortally hilarious play! But what’s inspired me is definitely that kind of silliness that worked in the ‘60s, and that works in modern sitcoms like 30 Rock and The Office.
As our chat comes to a close, I close with an end-of-interview classic
Describe the play in three words.
He draws breath and thinks – ‘Zany, silly, and [he thinks] hilarious with a question mark?’
Arguably three words, arguably more, though after watching the actors in rehearsals, I doubt he needs the punctuation. If you need an evening off this week then Whatever Happened To The Lead promises to dose you up with zaniness, silliness and hilarity(?)