Writer Henry Darke on the burden of tourism, and the importance of populating his play with real Cornish people
“I feel proud to have given a voice to life in Cornwall; the problems there and to Cornish people who are never ever seen ...” Henry Darke
Hi Henry, our patron Susan Penhaligon is voice over artist for the trailer. How did that come about?
Susan acted in the staged reading at the Finborough (Vibrant, new writing festival). She loved the play, loved doing the reading, and very kindly helped us with the voice-over. Susan is Cornish through and through and originally from St Ives, a place that has suffered due to excessive-tourism. She related to the theme in the play of local Cornish people being pushed out, disenfranchised by the holiday home problem; but more than that she related to the funny, brutal, real and un-romanticised voice of the characters. The way Cornish people talk is something you never hear in theatre, film, or television set in Cornwall.
What originally prompted you to write a play about the housing crises in Cornwall and beyond?
The London riots. I was relatively new to London and been living here for three years. When you grow up in Cornwall you really feel a sense of anger and disillusionment with the lack of opportunity and infrastructure, the feeling of being completely ignored. People come in and treat your home like a theme park. You feel invisible. When the riots occurred, and I saw how the media reacted to the events, I felt a strong connection to the people involved, the sense of not having a voice in society and not being seen or heard. I see this more and more in young people trying to survive in London, and in my friends, when I go home to Cornwall. I had a strong feeling when the riots unfolded, that was what I felt growing up in Cornwall – despite Cornwall’s unique housing and deprivation problems – is not unique to Cornwall but a national and global issue.
The affordable housing crisis is a leading national problem second only to Brexit, but in Cornwall it has been a huge and an ignored problem for fifty years. In the last few years, because of the financial crash, the ever-burgeoning holiday home market and influx of people that can afford homes that local people cannot, has further hollowed out communities and pushed first time buyers into the periphery, into areas like Roche and Camborne, as statistically poor as parts of Romania, and not advertised to tourists or in the housing pages of the Cornish Guardian or The Western Morning News. Only 20-30% of new builds and the Duchy of Cornwall’s Poundbury estates are affordable to people who live within Cornwall.
The play features maverick, Huck, whose mission is to turn the tide. Could you tell us more about this character?
I read The Monkey Wrench Gang, by Edward Abbey, about a group of environmentalists, scientists, and eco-warriors that band together to overturn the corporate industrial-tourism juggernaut, wreaking havoc across the American wilderness. I was drawn to the comedy, and the direct masculinity of some of the characters, also the more dry Dessert Solitaire, a diary of Abbey’s experience as a park ranger in Death Valley Arizona. The characters in Monkey Wrench fed into Huck, as well, more broadly, men, who are not particularly perfect, the male desire to be seen as a hero, that I have found interesting during my adult life in Cornwall and beyond.
Huck represents a sense of powerlessness and lack of opportunity in Cornwall. He is an ex-fisherman, which is a hard, solitary job. You don’t get any much reward from it other than a unique and very real connection to the sea. Huck doesn’t have a voice in society. He wants to be heard, but doesn’t know how to go about it, and while he has a clear ideology he is also vain, irresponsible, and stabs in the dark at how to go about changing his lot. I mentioned the London rioters and there is an element of that. Whatever you think, they reacted to an event, and railed against the system.
Although the central character is making a political stand, the play itself is a metaphor not a statement. Huck is someone defined by an event from his past, and how the truth behind that event has shifted and changed over seven years. The play looks at how myths are made, both on a local gossip level, and comparably, in society and the media. How the public is fascinated by fast news and tragic events, but not actively engaged in how to change society for the better.
It’s always fascinating to see where comedy arises in a play script, did you have fun with that?
It was a great pleasure writing the character of Daz, Huck’s arch nemesis, and a fountain of comedy gold. He is what you might call a professional Cornishman. Someone who moved there when young and lived there most of his life, and quickly absorbed the dialect both to fit in, and stand out. A self-made man and surf legend in the community. He was based on a lot of people I grew up and worked with in low paid menial jobs in Cornwall. It was a constant surprise how attuned my ear was to his voice! There is an ensemble scene at the heart of the play, a surf competition on a beach, which was a lot of fun to write.
As this is your this is your first full-length play, how did taking part in the Vibrant new writing festival (at Finborough) help you to develop it?
Without the reading at The Finborough the play would be not as developed as it is now. Three days of intensive rehearsals with great actors like Susan Penhaligon, and Chris Staines, and then seeing my play in front of any audience allowed me to see the weaknesses in the play, and to push it further. In the longer term this has allowed me to develop as a writer beyond Booby’s Bay, into my next two plays.
What other help has been to hand in its development?
James Peries selected Booby’s Bay for Open Sessions, and championed the play from that point. He is a great dramaturge, and enabled production support by Bristol Old Vic and the Ronald Duncan Literary Foundation. The play would not be happening if it wasn’t for James and without people like James, with a passion for new writing, making first time plays like this come to life.
Apart from his administrative role, he has given regular feedback on drafts of the play, and facilitated workshops with Bristol Old Vic third year drama students, which was as invaluable as the Finborough reading. We had two readings with Bristol Old Vic third year drama students, spread over a two-year period. It was fascinating for me to see how much more enthusiastically the students responded to the sense of rebellion in the play, compared to two years ago, when we lived in a much more politically predictable time.
What do you hope to achieve with the play?
As an audience I am fascinated by stories that open a window onto a world I don’t know. In film and TV Cornwall is aggressively plundered for its natural beauty, by people who have zero connection to the place. I feel proud to have given a voice to life in Cornwall; the problems there; to Cornish people, who are never ever seen, particularly on a London stage.
Finally, what are you most looking forward to seeing when the play opens?
I am in rehearsals at the moment and very excited by how director Chris White is bringing the play to life. He has been with the play for two years and is an experienced dramaturge, and even better director. He and producer Alison Holder have assembled the perfect cast and a great creative team including composer Michael Henry, who is turning the songs in the play into something very special. I’m excited to see the songs come to life but also the way Chris and designer Paul Burgess are re-imagining the locale to suit the intimate Finborough space. I’m also looking forward to seeing how the many bits of Cornish ‘wreck-wood’ will feature in the play, and how Huck will fry a fresh mackerel live on stage every night for a month.
BOOBY’S BAY by Henry Darke
Directed by Chris White
Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Road, London SW10 9ED
30 January – 24 February
Watch trailer (with Susan Penhaligon's voice over)
Second trailer (featuring protagonist Huck)