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Torben Betts on his new political play opening in Newcastle this week

New play What Falls Apart looks at the murky world of politics in the build up to an election

A scene from What Falls Apart
A scene from What Falls Apart

As the real-life political drama builds ahead of the General Election, what better time for a political drama?

Enter Live Theatre, which loves a play about politics (remember A Walk On Part: The Fall of New Labour, adapted by Michael Chaplin from Chris Mullin’s diaries, and Keepers of the Flame by Sean O’Brien?).

Max Roberts directed both of those and he is back in the political fray with What Falls Apart, set in a Tyneside bar in May 2015 ahead of “the most important General Election of a generation” (Live Theatre’s words).

Max recalls: “We did the adaptation of the Mullin diaries, about the rise and fall of New Labour, and in the run-up to another election I thought it was an appropriate time to have another look at where we are.

“I couldn’t help thinking that for so many years the miners’ strike hung over contemporary politics but at the end of the Blair government it was Iraq that cast a long shadow. This was something Torben recognised when we first got together to talk.”

Enter, at this point, Torben Betts, a playwright who has been living in our midst – well, Berwick – since 2003 but will be largely unknown to North East theatre-goers.

This Live Theatre commission will serve as an introduction, but we are going to be hearing more about Torben because he is also working on a stage version of Get Carter for Northern Stage.

First things first, though. What Falls Apart, which opens on Wednesday, April 22, has three characters and a cast of three.

Tom Savage (played by Nigel Hastings) is an ex-Labour minister who has been parachuted into a safe North East constituency.

In a bar he bumps into Venetia Fitzpatrick (Zannah Hodson), an attractive woman with a hidden agenda.

Behind the bar is Gary England (Kevin Wathen), teetotal and an aspiring Buddhist.

At Live’s Newcastle Quayside base, Torben says he is delighted to be presenting his first play in the North East.

He explains that in the past he has tended to send off fully scripted plays and they have been put on. At Live the process is more collaborative.

Certainly it seems that he and Max were drawn towards each other by invisible forces.

Max says: “I’d read some of Torben’s plays (there are about 18, performed or pending) and I’d seen a review of Invincible. I went to see it and enjoyed it.”

Torben Betts
Torben Betts

Invincible, staged last year in Richmond and then London, was described by one critic as “robust social comedy” which “shades into something darker and more disturbing”.

Torben says: “It got very good reviews but I was getting slightly frustrated that I couldn’t get other theatres to come along and see it.

“I wrote to every theatre in the country, saying here are the reviews so please come. Max was the most enthusiastic to meet me.”

Keen to commission a political play, Max had found his man.

Torben was born in Stamford, Lincolnshire, and studied English at Liverpool University. He trained as an actor but found playwriting more to his liking.

In 1999, handed what sounds like a gilt-edged opportunity, he was invited by Alan Ayckbourn to be resident dramatist at his Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.

Torben’s first play, A Listening Heaven, which was “about middle-class people being dysfunctional”, opened there that same year.

It was another play for Ayckbourn that contained the kernel of What Falls Apart.

Smiling, he explains: “It was about the bombing of Afghanistan (following the 9/11 atrocity) and it was... slightly brutal.

“I wrote it in 2001 as the Nato bombing was happening and it was about a New Labour politician who had strong reservations.”

After Afghanistan came Iraq when Bush and Blair went to war over “weapons of mass destruction”, leading to Max’s “long shadow” and Torben’s disenchantment.

Torben says: “I was slightly raised in the faith of my grandfather who was a ’30s Oxford communist type. My mother loved Blair and we used to have massive arguments about it.

“She found it hard to let go of Labour even when they were doing appalling things.

“The Labour Party in 1997 did do good, but Iraq and the New Labour thing turned people away. For a lot of us, it was our party and we don’t know if we’re ever going to get it back.”

Torben doesn’t just channel his frustrations into drama. He says he fired off letters about Afghanistan and Iraq to politicians.

Smiling bleakly, he adds: “I didn’t get anything back that I was satisfied with, so now I concentrate on local issues, like dog mess.”

But this new play has given him another chance to vent his feelings about Labour, human nature and politics in general.

Rearranging the bones of the unstaged Afghanistan play, he has come up with this play featuring “three very lonely souls over the course of a dark night”.

Max Roberts, artistic director of Live Theatre
Max Roberts, artistic director of Live Theatre

Savage, when an MP, voted for the invasion of Iraq against his instincts. “He followed the party line and as a result he lost his seat and his work and his status,” says Torben.

But on the other hand, interjects Max, he hasn’t quite gone away. He’s the type who, freed of the party whip, pops up on Question Time to express inconvenient views.

He passes on a Chris Mullin observation, that sometimes a party decides it’s better to have someone with boat-rocking tendencies on the inside p***ing out than on the outside p***ing in.

So it is that the carrot of a safe seat has been dangled in front of Tom Savage.

Talking to Max and Torben, I get a sense of a project imbued with real passion.

Torben says he and his wife came to Berwick for family reasons. They wanted more children and London’s cost of living made that difficult.

Having stayed previously at a cottage in the Scottish Borders, their eyes alighted on Berwick and they moved north.

Until now, Torben says, he has looked more to Scotland than Tyneside. But as an established writer (and now 47-year-old father-of-three) offers are coming from all directions.

As well as his North East projects, he is also working on a version of The Seagull for the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in London.

What Falls Apart is at Live Theatre, Newcastle Quayside, from April 22 (with the official world premiere on April 23) until May 16. On April 30 at 9.45pm you can meet Torben, Max and the cast to discuss the play.

Tickets and details of further related events from www.live.org.uk or tel. 0191 232 1232.


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