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Childhood fantasies becoming a reality for playwright Alistair McDowall

WHEN Alistair McDowall was a child growing up in Great Broughton near Middlesbrough he was obsessed with movies.

WHEN Alistair McDowall was a child growing up in Great Broughton near Middlesbrough he was obsessed with movies.

When it dawned on the youngster that he didn’t really have the means to make films, he turned to play-writing and so began a love for theatre which now is paying huge dividends.

The now-25-year-old has won the prestigious Bruntwood Prize for his play Brilliant Adventures, which made its debut in London, and then was awarded a bursary from Live Theatre in Newcastle which results in his one-man-show Captain Amazing having its premiere there in April.

So far, so good, and the next plan will be for Captain Amazing to wow crowds at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Alistair, who cheerfully admits to writing “odd” plays, is delighted at how things have turned out since he switched his attention from films to theatre all those years ago.

And nobody can accuse him of not putting in the groundwork before this flurry of success, as he’s been writing continuously since his schooldays and has worked to get plays shown in community centres and pubs.

“There was not a lot of theatre when I was growing up,” he says. “I never really went as a child other than to the panto at Christmas in Darlington.

“But my parents read a lot and introduced me to films.”

He also loved reading: “I consumed pretty much everything,” he recalls.

“When I was at primary school I started writing stories.

“I had wanted to be a filmmaker or novelist, either Steven Spielberg or Stephen King!”

“Then in secondary school I started doing drama and when I was 16 I wrote my first play.

“And I’ve written continuously, though I didn’t stage all of them.

“I’m not sure how many I’ve written – quite a lot, 20-odd; including a lot of terrible ideas!”

With play-writing he realised there are “no limits”.

“Nobody tells you not to do something.”

His decision to pursue it as a career developed when he went off to university to study drama and theatre studies.

“I kept on writing and put on plays there and when I finished I just carried on,” he says.

“I started with putting on plays in pubs and community centres – the best way to learn!”

Then came the success of his play Brilliant Adventures, set on a near-abandoned Middlesbrough housing estate, which won the Bruntwood Prize for play-writing in 2011 and formed part of The Royal Court Theatre’s young writers’ festival in London last year.

“It’s quite odd,” Alistair says of it; “a kind of black comedy set on a council estate, which sounds terrible – a typical playwright writing a play about the north – but I can assure you that’s not what it’s about.”

While he says “I try not to say too much about what happens”, it features 19-year-old Luke, a genius inventor, and his brother Rob, and tackles issues such as addiction.

But Alistair also hints that he was inspired by 90s plays, odd fantasy, science fiction and magic and adds: “It starts off being something you think you have seen before and ends up not!”

Gez Casey, literary manager at Live Theatre which is hosting Brilliant Adventures in May, in a co-production with the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester where Alistair still lives, has said: “Alistair has created a world where the extraordinary is entirely ordinary and we watch the mundane turn into the fantastical.”

As for Captain Amazing, when Alistair was put forward – and won – a Live Theatre bursary as part of its 2012 new writing festival with his idea for it, his success brought him back to the North East, where he loves the vibe of the quayside theatre and the audiences it attracts.

“I love the space; it’s an amazing theatre – it’s one of the warmest theatres I’ve ever worked in.”

And it was there that he developed what’s described as a funny and poignant one-man show.

Speaking of its origins, he explains: “I had this idea of a superhero who wanders into comedy nights and does stand-up.”

During its development into a full production, it changed quite a bit, with the superhero character seen through his child’s eyes.

Its first full showing will be at Live on April 9 – another highlight of a programme celebrating the theatre’s 40th year – and everyone is keen that it transfers to the Edinburgh Fringe.

Since these plays, Alistair has written others, including another featuring brothers which is, after all, a subject he knows plenty about.

He has two brothers of his own and a sister. All are a big part of what he does.

While the North East provided the backdrop for these particular plays, the setting isn’t particularly important; he’d rather his work just rings “true and real”.

“It’s more the kind of humour here that is appealing; that’s what I want to write about.”

And it’s the live medium of theatre that keeps him hooked.

“Theatre for me should be the most engaging, exciting form,” he says. “It’s in front of you; it’s direct and happening. If it works well, it’s like electricity. It’s fantastic.”

:: Captain Amazing runs at Live Theatre, Newcastle, from April 9-13 followed by Brilliant Adventures from May 29 to June 15. Visit www.live.org.uk or call 0191 232 1232 for tickets.

 

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