Behind the scenes with costume designer, Siân Thomas

By | Blog, Shows

Siân Thomas tells us about her process for designing the costumes for Baby, He Loves You

Early influences for Sian’s designs

Whilst reading a script for the first time, images will pop into your head straight away. As the costume designer, I wonder where the characters go shopping, how much money they might have – all that stuff makes a big difference.

On stage, the costumes are a visual cue which can hint at where a character might come from, or what kind of job they have, or a bit about their personality – all from what they’re wearing. So, there’s quite a lot of psychology that goes into the design. 

I also have to think very carefully about how each actor is going to get from one costume to another – the transitions between the scenes and the clothing changes within the scenes themselves, all those logistics. 

Usually what ends up on stage is different from what I think it’ll be at the beginning, because rehearsals really develop the ideas. And actors can bring their own things to the table too. So, some of the final costumes you’ll see are similar to those on my initial pinterest boards, or rather there’ll be clear influence from those images, and some of them came later in the process. 

I’ve got a massive thing about colour and the way it can blend with the storyline. If you’re having a bad day, you might subconsciously reflect that in your clothing. The character of Lucy, in particular, starts off in vibrant clothing, and then as the show goes on, she ends up in drabber colours. So, the visual matches the journey of how she’s feeling.

Bethany Wells’ set design is all pinks and greys. If I had too much pink and grey in the costumes, I knew they’d morph into the set a little bit, but at the same time I didn‘t want to have colours that jarred too drastically with the set. So, I came up with a colour palette with the pinks and greys in mind, but also a stronger teal green, an intense blue and a deeper red, which all go with the pink and grey, but they also stand alone. 

Alison was my favourite character’s costume to put together, because it’s quite simplistic. I think she’s the one person in the show who sits in the middle of the other characters. She’s neutral, in a sense, and you never really know who she sides with. But her’s was just fun to create as well. The motherofthebride who’s always wanting the wedding that she didn’t have.

Maddie, who plays Alison, is up on the hoop a lot in the show and is doing a great deal of movement. I needed to make sure that she can do what she needs to do on the hoop, so Alison’s whole wardrobe is very jumpsuit oriented. Satin jumpsuits all the way.

I wanted Phil to be all about checkered shirts in bold colours. Mike’s got a lot of collars on throughout, he’s a smartly dressed man. Jody is all about the halter neck and Lucy seems to have a lot of ruching going on.

Phil and Lucy have quite strong personalities, so are always in strong, dark colours, whereas Mike and Jodie are in pastels. Greys, pinks, whites and pale blues for Mike. Jodie’s always in a cream, and then I introduced a pink for her too, because I got bored of looking at cream, but it’s a very pastel pink. And then Alison sits in the middle. 

It’s great working with modern clothes, because there is so much choice these days, yet somehow I can never find that one thing I’m looking for! I don’t like too many costume changes; I think it can become very confusing for an audience. You want the costumes to sit and merge and not to be a distraction from the story.

So, even though these colour changes are going on, the audience won’t necessarily realise it. And with these costume and colour choices, I’m drawing subtle lines between them and the characters and their stories. 

Aerial Hoop in Baby, He Loves You

Baby, He Loves You rehearsal diary

By | Blog, Shows

RTYDS Intensive Residency Director, Rachael Abbey, shares reflections from the first two weeks inside the rehearsal room

Cast and creative team in one of our rehearsal spaces

Rehearsals are like watching magic being made. The first day always gives big ‘first day of school’ vibes. A group of people, many of whom haven’t met each other before but have all been slowly working on things in the background, come together to start taking the script from being words on a page into a full-blown show.

Coming in as an assistant director, I think it’s important to get to know all of the departments working on the show, as every element of a production of this scale really takes a village to create.  

The first week we were together was a bit like a buffet of the show. And everyone loves a buffet. Some of the delights on offer included:  

  • A readthrough of the script, with Maureen Lennon there to talk about where the idea came from and her writing process 
  • A model box presentation, where the designer Bethany Wells talked everyone through the design ideas for the show 
  • Chats about costume from Siân Thomas, who has effectively curated a micro-wardrobe for each character which reflects who they are 
  • An aerial hoop session by Dani Clements, our choreographer and for five people who had never really done any aerial before, they took to it incredibly well 
  • Some character work on the script to start building the world that the play takes place in 
  • Talks led by the Middle Child team about how the company works and what is in place to make sure that everyone who is not from the city is well looked after 
  • A photoshoot for publicity, which I think was a highlight for me 
  • Song learning with Ysabelle Wombwell for the newly written songs for the show 

So, as you can see it’s a lot, and that was just week one. We’re in week three now and we’ve got the shape of the show, which means we have the solid building blocks of the characters, and we’ve physically placed everyone where they need to be during the scenes.

We’re now doing a lot of choreography and movement, which will help to connect the dots of the scenes and the overarching story. It helps us tell the story in another way which is fun and powerful and devastating, all in the same breath.  

Baby, He Loves You is a big play with some big ideas and questions, and that’s potentially scary, but we’re not just working with an immensely talented team, we’re working with a team who is caring and supportive and playful and holds space for each other.

I can’t wait for you to see this show, but the process has really been a joy already, and I feel incredibly fortunate to be in the room with everyone.

  • Baby, He Loves You opens Friday 19 April and runs until Sunday 28 April at Stage@TheDock, Hull
  • Book your tickets via our website, or by contacting Hull Truck Theatre
  • This show tackles some heavy issues and our content warnings include: strong language, misogyny, sex, discussion of sexual assault and sexual harassment. Please see our content notes page for a more detailed plot summary
  • Please take a look at our what to expect page for additional information regarding the venue and accessibility
Laura Meredith as Jodie, the bride, in Baby, He Loves You

Gallery: Baby, He Loves You character portraits

By | Shows

Feast your eyes upon the fabulous new character portraits for Baby, He Loves You, our new play, by Hull writer Maureen Lennon, that asks how well we know those who love us most.

The photos show bride Jodie, best friend Lucy, dad Phil, mum Alison and husband-to-be Mike after a big reveal at her wedding, playing with audience expectations of what such a big day might entail.

Photography is by Tom Arran, with costume by Baby, He Loves You costume designer, Siân Thomas and hair and make-up by Laura Watson, with thanks to Whites Hire Studio on Wincolmlee.

Art direction is by Middle Child audience development manager Jamie Potter, with RTYDS Intensive Residency Director, Rachael Abbey and support from marketing assistant Alice Beaumont.

Baby, He Loves You runs in a pop-up wedding marquee at Stage@TheDock in Hull, from 19-28 April. 

See our listings page for full details, including show dates, times and detailed content notes, as well as to book tickets.

Tickets are available now, at a suggested price of £20, but available from £15. Read more about this pay what you decide model in a blog post by audience development manager, Jamie Potter.

  • Read a Q&A with writer, Maureen Lennon, about her inspirations for the play, her process and the state of support for new writing today.

Baby, He Loves You: Q&A with Maureen Lennon

By | Blog, Shows

We sat down with Hull-based playwright, Maureen Lennon, to find out more about forthcoming production Baby, He Loves You

Maureen Lennon‘s newest play opens Friday 19 April at Stage@TheDock, Hull

When did you know that you wanted to write this story?

I started writing this story back in 2018. I did a residency that Middle Child had set up, called Concrete Retreat. We were asked to all come with a question that we were interested in exploring and they ran what you’d think of as a Writers’ Room. I was in a stage of my life where all my friends were in long-term relationships (most of us), but that was kind of a new thing. Maybe we’d all been in them for a couple of years and we were negotiating all that comes with that: suddenly having to address loads of stuff that perhaps we weren’t expecting. I was like “We’re all feminists here, so how is the conversation we’re all having every time: ‘Can you just pick up your own clothes?’ and ‘I don’t want to do all the hoovering’.” So, I came in with a really earnest question asking how can men and women ever love each other in patriarchy? And we had some intense, big chats about it. It made me start thinking about love and romance and how they interact with patriarchal ideas, in a way that I think we’re perhaps less good at unpicking. 

Then I did a load of reading and wrote the beginnings of the scene about this girl and her mates, who was getting married, and I thought about all the stuff that comes with that. And over the next six months I wrote a first draft and we did a reading of it, just as we went into lockdown.

So, it’s been about six years in the making. 

Talk us through your process for writing Baby, He Loves You.

I’m going to be honest here: I don’t write most days. I do loads of reading and thinking and procrastinating – but that is because I do think writing is kind of the smallest amount of the process. Maybe some people are much quicker at this than I am, but it takes me quite a long time to have the thoughts and to know that that’s the thought. If I try and write before that, then what I’m writing is quite hollow. The core of the idea has to be there and that does take me time. So, I would normally be working on about five to six projects at once. 

In terms of the day-to-day, I’d usually go for a run and then work (at my other job), then I’d normally do a couple of hours writing in the afternoon and then walk around (and cry for a bit) and eat some snacks – and then probably if I’m on quite a tight deadline I’ll do a few more hours in the evening. 

I never hear people say it, but I can go weeks without writing a word and I think if that’s your process then you’re not alone. 

What inspired you to write a ‘pressure cooker drama’?

One of the things we did during Concrete Retreat was artistic director Paul Smith gave us some stuff to read, and he recommended Violence and Son by Gary Owen, which I read and was obsessed with the tension in it. And the intensity of it. One of my questions was – and I think the play’s brilliant, this is not criticism of the play – what would it look like if a woman wrote this play? So much of it is about the ideals that we’re inheriting from society, and from our carers, and I wanted to explore what is truthful about that in terms of roles of femininity and how they’re interacting.  

I’d also just written a lot that was very different to that. And I think I was hungry to try that form and see what it could give me. The last play I wrote for Middle Child, Us Against Whatever, was a big sprawling cabaret spanning years and generations. I was curious what would happen if I wasn’t allowed to do any of that. And I do find rules, formal rules, quite exciting and liberating when you write – so right from the off I knew I wanted the story to take place in this bedroom. 

I was so keen on the bedroom because 1) the pressure cooker element and the way it intensifies things. And 2) this is a play where the event isn’t what people are talking about, it’s how they talk about it. It’s about our private relationships that we have with people. 

Do you strive to put women’s stories at the heart of your writing?

I don’t think I strive. Anyone who has met me is like, yeah, that’s what Maureen is interested in, but I think I’m also just a person in the world. Us Against Whatever, which dealt with Brexit and politics and was trying to be a state-of-the-nation play, was exploring some big things about who we are now, as people. And I think it was doing two things that people found unexpected: one was doing that from the perspective of Hull, because people think state-of-the-nation plays happen in London. That was quite deliberate. But two, which I hadn’t clocked, was it was about two young women – who were the main characters. And lots of people said to me, “Oh, it’s really interesting that you’ve chosen to do the female voice of this story.” And I hadn’t considered that – it was more that these were the people that I was interested in, these were the voices that were in me.  

There’s a joke in my work that we always kill all the men – that doesn’t happen in Baby, He Loves You (or maybe it does. Come see. No spoilers). Men’s stories can be universal and human, and so can women’s. So yeah, it’s great that women lead, but they also have permission to tell stories that are about universal human experiences. 

Some of the issues within the play have been at the forefront of conversations for a few years. Is the play saying something about how society interacts with these issues?

Yeah, I think so. I wanted to say something about some of the structures and ideals of misogyny that are so insidious in our lives. And that’s one of the reasons I chose the wedding. The way that the wedding operates in the play – and the way it’s like a barrel that keeps on rolling, that everyone’s inside and how hard it is to escape from that – all of the characters become complicit. I think it’s understandable, if you’re in the role of supportive family member or friend, expressing encouragement and saying “You look amazing” all the time, then that really enforces compliance and silence with stuff that you might be uncomfortable about. To me, it’s a tiny example which is happening all the time in the world, on a bigger scale, and how hard it is to try to kick back at things and how much the world – because of the system we’ve set up – is enforcing that behaviour. To behave and be a good little girl and get on with stuff. 

I also wanted to talk about the repercussions of when people that you really love end up doing bad things, and perhaps they’ve been really good to you, so how do you square that? And how do we all live with that? Because, truthfully, unless we all do that work, I don’t see that we’re getting anywhere. 

There is more to everyone than the worst thing they’ve ever done, but there’s also more to everyone than the best thing they’ve ever done. Only if we think about that, and only if we can acknowledge that, can there be any route to change and redemption. And maybe if we allow for that, people would be more willing to self-examine and think about the things that they’ve done because there would be a route back to person-hood.  

What about having Baby, He Loves You take place during the buildup to a wedding (and indeed the day itself) appealing to you?

I think the thing about weddings is they’re really hard to talk about. I grew up thinking probably I won’t get married, but maybe I will, feeling conflicted; but actually I really love going to weddings. Can I preface this by saying I’ve been to some gorgeous ones where my friends get married, I’m weeping, I’m absolutely loving it. But they’re hard to talk about because people get so protective of them as a day and as an idea – people get quite defensive about them. And that’s really interesting. Often people that you’ve known for years start doing mad shit. And you’re like, “Oh, I’ve known you for 15 years and I didn’t know that we really, really, really cared about the palette of the eyeshadow”.  

I don’t mean that in a sneery way. I think there’s been a real culture of sneering at brides recently that I find really distasteful, the whole “bridezilla” thing. Actually when you investigate what they’re sneering at, they’re mainly sneering at the fact that women are doing an incredible amount of work and emotional labour of organising this massive party, which holds a lot of pressure and expectation. Often the partner is not doing that work and yet somehow we sneer at woman for it. 

It also felt like a great event and a great party. And there’s so many traditions that we, as an audience, can recognise and that we’re waiting for and understand. 

How do you feel when you reach the point when a creative team starts to put your work up on its feet?

Such a relief, isn’t it? I love that point where people start discussing things. Because for a long time you keep identifying problems during an R&D or a reading and every time, as the writer, I walk out the door with the realisation that I have to fix it.

In rehearsals there are new problems, but better minds than mine are going to fix them and make them great. I do bits of directing as well, but I’m always strict that I won’t direct stuff I’ve written. When I have done that in the past, I learnt so fast that you lose so many creative ideas because you’re having to come up with them all and actually, how amazing if you can have four more people thinking creatively? So, I love rehearsals. I’m a little creep in rehearsals. I love to hang around all the time.

What do you hope for audiences seeing the show, and that could be anything like a take-away for them or the viewing experience?

I hope they fall in love with Jodie and Lucy. And their friendship. This play is a love story – but I think it’s a love story about those two. And that feels truthful to me in terms of my friends.

And I hope people do feel a sense of catharsis, or a sense that they can start these hard conversations. And I hope people are excited for the bar and stick around afterwards.

Is there an element of the staging that you’re particularly excited about seeing manifest?

Yeah, I’d say the hoop. It’s cool. It’s so cool. We did the first day of rehearsals and everyone just clapped as soon as anyone held the hoop. As soon as anyone had one arm on it, we were, like, “Looks amazing!”. And, genuinely, it looks so good. I’m really excited for that.

What’s it been like to develop this play within the current landscape of new writing, in this climate?

It’s felt lucky. Middle Child are amazing because of how much they hold you and support you in that landscape. Middle Child gave me my first full-length commission with Us Against Whatever. I have since written other things, but they were the first to offer me a second full-length commission for the same company. And that was such an amazing offer, because we get a bit addicted to new. Getting someone to continue to commit to your development and your vision and your voice feels so rewarding.

I think what’s worrying at the minute is that the idea of risk has crept back in to such an extent. And all you need to do is look around and see that theatres who produce new writing are maybe still doing that, but if you look closer they might have to have four co-producers on board to do a play. So that obviously means we’re doing a quarter of the plays and that’s scary.

Developing this has been a dream and Middle Child invests so much in writers. They think carefully about how they’re doing that and about the balance of new voices which, as with their new writing festival (Fresh Ink in July), they really commit to. But they’re also committing to the longevity of people’s careers and voices. And I think that balance is very hard to get right. So, you know, our hope is more people will figure out a way that they can do the same in their organisations.

  • Baby, He Loves You opens Friday 19 April and runs until Sunday 28 April at Stage@TheDock, Hull
  • Book your tickets via our website, or by contacting Hull Truck Theatre
  • This show tackles some heavy issues and our content warnings include: strong language, misogyny, sex, discussion of sexual assault and sexual harassment. Please see our content notes page for a more detailed plot summary

Meet the cast of Red Riding Hood

By | News, Panto, Shows

The harvest moon is a-rising and trouble is on the way… in the shape of our fabulous panto cast!

Meet the gang who will bring Red Riding Hood to the stage at Social this Christmas, in our anarchic take on the classic fairytale.

Chosen by you in a public vote last year, our rock’n’roll panto features a gnarly werewolf, live music and the chance to make as much noise as you possibly can.

There’s some Hull faces who are familiar to panto fans, as well as a few new ones, who we’re sure you will welcome with open arms.

So without further ado, let’s introduce you to…

Alice Beaumont channelled Rik Mayall to play the Sheriff of Cottingham in Robin Hood last year to much acclaim.

This Christmas her character inspiration takes a sinister turn, as she injects the spirit of Margaret Thatcher into Baroness Scrimp, the politician out to destroy Red Riding Hood and Pattie Breadcake’s bakery.

Drummer extraordinaire Jack Chamberlain, who played King John in Robin Hood, sticks to the dark side this year, as hunter Colonel Montgomery Blowhard.

Blowhard by name, blowhard by nature, this khaki-clad nuisance is Scrimp’s right-hand man but more bark than bite.

Marc Graham returns as dame Pattie Breadcake, who has kicked the habit following last year’s spiritual sortie as Sister Skeg.

This year business is booming at the Buns of Steel bakery, where Pattie has her fingers in all the pies. The only thing missing is a fella to fix her soggy bottoms.

Long-time panto star Josie Morley resumes the role of audience friend, this time playing Jack Lumber.

He’s a lumberjack (geddit?) and so was his dad, and his dad before him, and his dad before him, and his dad before him. But his dad before him was an estate agent and we don’t talk about that.

Making her panto debut is Sarah Penney, of Beach Body Ready and Fast Food Megaverse fame.

Fun fact: Sarah’s skeleton is composed entirely of funny bones, so bring a mop because an accidental wee is 100% guaranteed.

Your favourite reluctant stage manager, Andy Ross, will once again appear with all the vim and vigour we’ve come to expect from them.

And after a star-turn as a moon in Robin Hood, we’ve managed to craft an entire extra character out of the same joke. Who says the arts are underfunded?

Oliver Strong returns as understudy, ready to step-in should a performer fall ill, as he did with great aplomb last Christmas.

You may also recognise Oliver from Faustus, by From Below at Stage at the Dock and as the Dungeon Master in Silent Uproar’s Dungeons and Dragons.

Beats Bus hero Kobby Taylor makes his first panto appearance since playing Flounder in The Little Mermaid.

This time Kobby, who also appeared in There Should Be Unicorns, plays Rupert Scaremonger, the roving reporter sowing seeds of fear among the people of Hull.

New behind the keys at Social this Christmas is Natalie Walker, who will lead the band in our rock’n’roll takes on various pop songs. Her most recent work includes Beverley Does Broadway and The Pirates of Christmas Island with She Productions.

And joining us on Saturday 23 December as BSL interpreter for three performances, including family and late-night shows, is Dave Wycherley.

Dave has interpreted our pantomimes every year since 2017 and we are delighted to have him join us again this Christmas.

Production team

Working their panto magic behind the scenes is our amazing production team.

Natalie Young is the evergreen brains behind our set, props and costume design and Katie Price, who turned up on our doorstep with a portfolio of costume work, is now our very first panto costume maker, bringing Natalie’s designs to life.

Adam Foley is our veteran lighting designer, tasked with glowing up the Buns of Steel bakery, Anlaby Woods and other scenery.

Jay Hirst joins the rehearsal room as deputy stage manager and will run the show from the tech desk in the venue, alongside sound engineer Tom Smith, while Anja Bryan-Smith joins panto for the first time as stage manager, after working on our Gipsyville project, This One’s For Us.

Jon Beney also enters the fray for the first time as choreographer.

Paul Smith, Middle Child’s artistic director, has once again written the script after it was selected by last year’s audience. He will also direct the show.

And finally the Middle Child core team will produce, production manage, dramaturg and market the show.

  • Tickets for Red Riding Hood are on-sale now, available from £13.50-19.50
bizarre fae from Three Minute Monologues

Three Minute Monologues: Uncovered

By | Blog, Shows

An inside perspective of Three Minute Monologues

Three Minute Monologues is a collaborative writer showcase between the Warren Youth Project and Middle Child, funded by Comic Relief, in which writers and professional actors work with young people to create short but sweet monologues.

These come from creative writing workshops that have taken place over the past year, with those results passed to playwrights who used their work as inspiration for original monologues.

These monologues will be performed for the first time at Social on Thursday 31 August, as part of Freedom Festival 2023.

Ahead of the sharing we asked, Andie, aka anti-pop/electro/punk artist Bizarre Fae, to share their experience of contributing to the project.

When Three Minute Monologues began I was super excited to work on these, writing alongside the awesome spoken word poet, Jodie Langford. I feel truly blessed to have been part of this project and I can’t wait to see these monologues be performed now we have received and read them. 

Early in the project, I was nervous to write honestly. It felt much easier to write silly stories about the topics we were given, but as I listened to my peers share their writings I became more and more confident in my ability to share truth in my words. It became a weekly safe space for all of us that I looked forward to, not just for my creative outlet, but also to hear the self-expression of my fellow writers.

The group was made up of a large variety of creatives, some of whom did not consider themselves creative at all. It was beautiful to see my newfound friends discover confidence in their imagination and creative ability, many of them continuing to write outside of the project. Hearing the words of my peers was inspirational and empowering: it made me aspire to bear more of my soul in my words.  

When we got the scripts back it was exhilarating, seeing the personality of my peers laced into such creative retellings of our words was an unexpected highlight. The first script we read was an incredible piece called The Secret Diary Of Robyn No-Breast. Personally, I’ve struggled with gender identity since I was a little kid. I never understood the harsh confines of what was deemed ‘for boys’ and ‘for girls’. Much like Robyn, I found comfort in the nonbinary identity. It was cathartic to read a story of someone so similar to myself, to finally be face-to-face with a character who echoed my experience navigating this crazy divided world. 

In the next script, A List Of All The People More Fucked Up Than Me,  

that relatability and catharsis grew stronger, as I saw my influence in Molly’s speech. As she began her birthday celebration, it was wonderful to live vicariously through this trailblazing mad woman. I cannot tell you the number of times I have daydreamed of giving a room full of billionaires what-for about their mistreatment of others. The art of anarchy shone through in the writing of this monologue and it made me so happy to see the true angst of youth shine through. 

With  Life: It’s The Best the tone shifts extraordinarily in a fascinating way. The concept of a bureau between life and death was intriguing from the get-go, allowing a more existential conversation that left a profound impact on me. Although less youthful in tone, a lot was to be gained from the dissociation from the innate human experience. After the main character pulls themself through an entire lifespan in the blink of an eye, they rush to alert the bureau to the necessity for human connection. For me, this is an echo of the depersonalisation forced onto us from a young age in the school system. The way we are trained to hide our individuality to be good little workers, regardless of the impact on our mental health. We only get one life and we should be able to express that in whatever way feels natural. They are our memories to take to the grave and nobody should be able to make us feel as though our life is not our own. 

The impact of this experience has been truly eye-opening. Seeing so many minds come together to produce these monologues has been heartwarming. From sitting in the writing sessions and opening myself up to listening to my peers do the same, to reading the way these conversations were interpreted by a third party, it’s been a truly life-changing experience and I would be eager to participate in something like this again. 

  • See Three Minute Monologues for free at Social on Thursday 31 August, from 7.30pm. Book tickets through the Freedom Festival website.

Out Loud scratch night returns with double-bill

By | Artist Development, News, Shows

Tickets are now on-sale for our second edition of Out Loud, a scratch night in Hull for new writing, produced in collaboration with Silent Uproar.

Following last year’s sharing of Casino by Larner Wallace-Taylor, we’re back with a double-header over two nights – Friday 28 and Saturday 29 July – at our rehearsal space on High Street.

1988 by Hannah Scorer

In 1988 two young women fall in love with each other and the idea of changing the world. Motivated by the horrors of Section 28, they find themselves pushed apart as one tries to fight the system by becoming part of it and the other takes an increasingly radical route.

Shit Life Crisis by Olivia Hannah

Grace has beaten cancer, but she doesn’t feel like a winner. As she holds a memorial for her best friend, Abbie, who helped her through the illness, Grace reveals all the ways in which chemo saved her life by tearing it apart, and questions whether what’s left was worth saving at all.

Hannah Scorer came through the Middle Child Writers’ Group, while Olivia Hannah has come through Silent Uproar’s Making Trouble programme.

A further edition of Out Loud will take place in October, featuring Cuckoo by Chris Pearson, another writer from the Middle Child Writers’ Group.

Out Loud is a showcase for new writers to see early drafts of their plays performed for the first time, in front of a friendly audience.

Tickets are available on a pay what you decide basis, meaning you reserve your seat for free, then pay on the evening after the performance, with sharings at 7pm on both Friday 28 July and Saturday 29 July.

Interview with Modest writer, Ellen Brammar

By | Blog, Shows

Playwright Ellen Brammar sits down with us for a look inside the creation of her newest show, Modest. 

The year is 1874. The Royal Academy of Arts debuts a painting in its annual Summer Exhibition entitled Calling the Roll After An Engagement, Crimea. As Ellen Brammar would herself joke in 2023 – catchy title. 

Better known as The Roll Call, this painting garnered the attention of Britain, creating a celebrity of one yet unknown, female artist, Elizabeth Thompson. 

148 years later Elizabeth and her story of overnight fame have captured the attention of playwright and Middle Child founding member, Ellen Brammar. 

Crafting a raucous comedy out of the life of a woman whose dreams crumble for being as such, Ellen has dragged Elizabeth’s talent back into public view and into the modern.  

We sat down with Ellen to talk about her journey of piecing Modest together over the last five years and creating fiction out of fact, as Elizabeth Thompson once again prepares to catch the eye of the nation.   

Where did the inspiration come from to write Modest?

About five years ago I listened to the first ever episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History, ‘The Lady Vanishes’, where he talks about Elizabeth Thompson: the Victorian painter who became famous overnight and how she almost became the first woman elected into the Royal Academy of Arts.  

Whilst I was listening to the episode, I was really drawn into the story and I thought: “This would make a great play. Someone should write that.” It took me another year before I came to the realisation that that someone could be me.  

I used it as an inspiration, I suppose, for the work I was about to make with Middle Child. I just thought that it was just a really good story that I could use as part of my research, or use to influence me into making a completely fictional play.  

Which I did – write a fictional play – with that in mind, but actually really didn’t like the thing I’d written. After about six months of working on it being like “it’s not very good”, I threw it away. 

It’s one of the scariest things you can do as a writer, but also one of the most satisfying. Throwing away a whole draft is like ripping off a plaster. It feels really good. 

Then I spoke to Paul [Smith, co-director of Modest and Middle Child artistic director], and I just said, “That story about Elizabeth Thompson that we have been using as influence, could I just write her story? Could I just take her and write that story?” He, being someone who is big on risk taking, just went: “Yeah, go for it. Do it and see what happens.” So I did.

What do you think it is about Elizabeth that continually brought you back to writing her character?

Real people often aren’t what you want them to be. Their stories don’t always fit into the perfect narrative. But that’s what I loved about Elizabeth and this moment in her life. And it was just that, a moment; I only explore five years in the play.

This is where the first idea came that the Elizabeth in the play should be flawed; she doesn’t do what the modern audience would want her to do. She describes in her autobiography how she missed out getting elected into the Royal Academy, finishing with the devastating line: “The door has been closed. And wisely.” Ultimately accepting their decision and agreeing with it.

There were other lines from her autobiography that really drew me in, painting a picture of who Elizabeth could have been. One of my favourites, “I will single myself out”, ignited the idea that my Elizabeth would be determined and gloriously arrogant.

How truthful did you feel your portrayal of Elizabeth needed to be as you were writing her?

I began as close to fact as history allows, reading her autobiography, looking at essays about her and her art. There was not actually that much written about her, but there was enough to actually start understanding what happened and to look into her character. 

The only way I could really think about her actual character was from her autobiography. There were certain lines in her autobiography that really stood out that made me think about her being really determined. She knew what she wanted and that’s what really came across for me. 

But it became really clear, pretty quickly, that I needed to create a fictional character. The Elizabeth in the play is not the ‘real’ Elizabeth, she can’t be, and I wouldn’t want her to be. I needed to create a character that fitted my purposes, so that’s when I started straying away and I just did that happily. 

I never wanted to write a factual piece about Elizabeth Thompson. That was really freeing, the minute that I started thinking that I don’t know the real Elizabeth and I’m never going to know the real Elizabeth, so it was great to dive into creating a completely fictional one. 

Saying that, I still wanted to have elements, or a flavour, of the real woman. That’s why I’ve kept some direct quotes from her autobiography in the play.   

I found it a real tricky balance throughout about things that happened to her and what facts I needed to keep, which ones I could change and which ones I could mould to suit the story. Real life doesn’t work in a linear narrative like how we tell stories.  

There had to be certain things where I needed dips, or I needed the energy to go up, or the energy of a crisis point at a certain moment in the play, so I had to mould that a little bit.  

I didn’t want to play around with the actual fact facts – time scales and things like that -0 and I really tried not to, but I think something that I found was I had to let go a little of that.  

In the play the first scene title is “It’s All True Apart From When We’re Lying” and I think that gave me the license to be like, yeah, this is what happened but I’m going to lie and I‘m going to be okay with that. 

What is your usual writing process and how was writing Modest a different experience to writing previously?

My process of writing Modest was mainly different due to the amount of time I’ve been writing it. I was first commissioned by Middle Child five years ago. It’s been a long process.

It wasn’t meant to be that long, but the pandemic pushed us back and I had two babies in that time too. 

It’s been hard at times, wondering if was ever going to happen, but also a bit of a luxury, to have such an extended amount of time meant that I could really immerse myself in it. Not that I’ve been writing solidly for five years, far from it. I’ve had two lots of maternity leave for starters.  

It’s been me dipping in and out of it, me being a parent and struggling with having newborns and three-year-olds. But the play’s been there, at the back of my mind, for a long time, bubbling away. 

It has been a luxury because the play has really evolved and it’s had the time and space to do that. My writing process in general has probably changed as well.  

I could never write in the afternoons, so I used to just write for about two or three hours in the morning. As my time has been pressured more by having kids, if I’m honest, I find that I have to be less picky about when I write, so I try now to just write whenever I can, while still having a healthy work-life balance.

What is the draw for you to writing powerful women?

I’m really drawn to power, or the lack of it. It was my mentor who pointed out to me that I write about power a lot. I always seem to return to characters that are grappling to get power after having it taken away, or never having any in the first place. It’s about agency and not feeling that they’ve got that. 

The characters that I write are often people that I’m not, or that have elements that I would like to have in my personality but don’t. I’ve loved writing Elizabeth, she’s unapologetically self-assured and I think I would like that in my own personality.  

Making these characters 3D and making them flawed – deeply flawed in most cases – is really good as well. I never wanted Elizabeth to be the saviour. You’re not going to watch it and go “oh my gosh, she’s got all the answers”, because I don’t have all the answers.  

Writing a play is a writer saying: “I don’t have all the answers, I’m going to write about how I don’t have all the answers and see where we end up.” And that’s okay. I don’t think you can go see a piece of art and think this is the answer to everything.

At what point did Modest take on its current form and become a piece of drag, cabaret and queer art?

That mainly happened when Luke [Skilbeck, co-director of Modest] from Milk Presents came on board. I sort of always knew that there was going to be some element of drag in it, because we always knew that we were going to have to double-up casting.  

The RAs, the men in the show, say some really disgusting things and are really misogynistic and it felt like that had to be sent up. As I was writing it, I never thought this was a really serious piece. It had to be heightened in a way and we knew that drag would do that.  

During one of the R&Ds me and Paul had a chat and we both agreed that we needed someone who knew that craft and Luke came instantly to mind.  

Luke read the play and thought, actually, there’s lots in here that lends itself to queer art, to cabaret and to drag and then they came on board and then we sort of spent the next four or five drafts bringing that in.  

Really, the story stayed exactly the same. It was more bringing out elements of the script to make it suit the form a bit more.

What is the process like for yourself as a writer to open the doors to a creative team?

You start by being in your bedroom on your own for hours at a time, just you and your laptop, occasionally sending it to people and hoping that they like it – and dreading their notes – to then suddenly being in a room full of 30 people.  

It’s daunting and overwhelming but really exciting. I think you have to just trust that everyone knows their craft. You’ve done the writing, you’ve put the words down and then you just have to just trust that everyone else is going to take that and do what they do.  

They know what they’re doing and that’s the really cool bit of it. The actors know what they’re doing, the set designer knows what they’re doing, the lighting designer knows what they’re doing, the directors know what they’re doing and it all just comes together. It’s collaborative.  

Plays aren’t meant just to be read, they’re meant to be seen and performed.

How does this process feel for you from being a founding member of Middle Child to now being the writer on the largest show Middle Child has put on to date?

I think it’s surreal. I think the two things, being a founding member and being the writer of Modest, feel very different. I never ever, ever would’ve imagined when we started the company that I would have written this show or that I would be here.  

Honestly, ten or eleven years ago, I would not have believed that at all. I can’t really marry the two things together.

What are your hopes for Modest?

I want people to see it mainly. It’s going to be a really special show and it deserves to be seen. People should see it, people are going to really enjoy it.  

It’s joyful and there are moments of hope in there as well. I think it’s going to be a great show that should go far.

  • The world premiere of Modest opens tonight at Hull Truck Theatre, playing until this Saturday 27 May. Modest will then tour the UK, concluding at Kiln Theatre, London. 

Behind the scenes video of Modest

By | Shows

The first performance of Modest, our new show in collaboration with Milk Presents, written by Ellen Brammar with music by Rachel Barnes, is now just days away from opening.

In the last week of rehearsals, at our space in Hull’s old town, we invited Fly Girl Films to come and speak with some of the team about what audiences can expect from the show.

Modest premieres at Hull Truck Theatre, 23-27 May, before heading on tour to the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield; Northern Stage, Newcastle; New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich; Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough; The Warehouse in Holbeck, Leeds and Kiln Theatre, London.

See our Modest page for all dates and tickets details.

Modest embedded artist: Celeste Richardson

By | Blog, Shows

What would happen if we invited a visual artist into the Modest rehearsal room to observe the process of creating a play, and then respond to it through their preferred medium?

That was an idea posed by Jill Howitt and Thomas Robinson of the Critical Fish, an artist-led project in Hull which promotes critical but accessible writing about art and visual culture.

And it was an idea we loved. We’ve paid for an embedded critic to join us in the room before, so why not an embedded artist?

Step forward Celeste Richardson, an artist living and working in Hull, who is studying for a BA in Fine Art at Hull School of Art and Design. They graduate in summer 2023 and make figurative oil paintings.

Celeste’s practice is a continuous investigation into making sense of and expressing one’s own queer identity. Their paintings examine compartmentalised, conflicting versions of self and converge them on the canvas, celebrating gender non-conformity and fluidity.

They are influenced by contemporary drag performers, and Michael Warner’s writings on Counterpublics. Perfect for Modest, then.

Celeste joined us for a full day of rehearsals on Tuesday 9 May, when the company was working on staging the final few scenes of the show, as well as recapping choreography so far.

Below are their sketches from that day, accompanied by some thoughts on the process.

Celeste Richardson

“I immediately noticed the collaborative nature of the rehearsal process. The actors and creative team work together, generating ideas all the time and listening to every voice in the room.

“This allows the scenes to be delivered in a way that feels authentic and representative of the people who relate to the story, because the actors have a say.

“Because of this, the rehearsal room was a completely safe space. Everyone has the confidence and support to be themselves, make suggestions, experiment, try things, fail, try again, free of judgement.

“This environment of total acceptance is something I have not experienced to this degree of completeness, and I felt an atmosphere of optimism, excitement and electricity from this that was hugely inspiring and affirming for me personally.

“I would describe the actual process of constructing the scenes as representative of queerness, not just the themes of the play.”



Drawings #1 and #2 were responses to this. I was focusing on that idea of a concentration of energy and that being a catalyst for playfulness, freedom, fluidity, identity evolving/shifting and elevating queer voices. I loved how everyone was taking up space in the room, being loud, vocal and unapologetic.



Drawings #3 and #4 respond more directly to the material and characters. The inclusion of the top hat is a clear subversion of gender roles at the time, so these drawings were playing on that breaking down of the categories of gender, with references to classical busts with the statue-like figures. 



Drawing #5 responds to the ‘Bossy Women song. I felt an intensity and strength that gained amplitude as the song went on and as the characters realised their power and ambition. I wanted to capture the feeling of a collision of energy. 

Drawing #6 responds to the scene where Elizabeth gets rejected by the RA. This scene, to me, was an abrupt reminder of the boundaries in place for the characters.

I started with the imagery of a business suit and exaggerated the harsh lines of that image, playing off my initial drawings that focused on energy, freedom and fluidity, and directly opposing that: the dark, opaque marks absorb and diminish energy, and the jagged lines are sharp and unforgiving. 



Drawing #7 responds to the feeling of empowerment for women and queer people that the play champions. I quickly sketched different iterations of gender presentation, trying to embody that same sense of energy and potential.

My material selection was important for all the responses, e.g., graphite and charcoal naturally refuse detail, which allows me to suggest shapes and focus on the overall feeling of the drawing and not get caught up in details within the figures that do not matter.

Drawing #8 responds to the scene where Malais and Elizabeth talk after her rejection. I was intrigued by the actors’ positioning in the space; being across the room from each other amplified the tension between them during this emotional scene.

I felt the lack of colour was important here, as this scene is another moment where the characters are grounded, reminded of the reality of the boundaries at play for them. 

Middle Child would like to thank Celeste for joining us in the room, as well as Jill Howitt and Thomas Robinson of The Critical Fish for suggesting the idea and then putting us in touch with Celeste.

It’s the first time we’ve shared our process in this way and found it hugely inspiring to see a visual artist respond to our work and with such immediacy.

The Critical Fish will also be running a free workshop at Ferens Art Gallery, on Saturday 27 May, to view and discuss Elizabeth Thompson’s painting The Return from Inkerman.

Book your place when buying a ticket for Modest at Hull Truck Theatre.