Tom Gutteridge: Friend's career change is to be applauded

A number of Tom Gutteridge's friends have reinvented themselves. One is Tom Harvey who is now an award-winning playwright

Tom Harvey, former chief executive of Northern Film & Media
Tom Harvey, former chief executive of Northern Film & Media

I’m rather in awe (and more than a little jealous) of friends who have reinvented themselves.

Over the last six years I’ve watched Keith Hann (who turned 60 last week, for which many happy returns) morph from curmudgeonly bachelor into curmudgeonly husband, father and television celebrity, thanks to the belated entry into his life of a young wife, two children and a docu-reality series.

This week I discovered that another friend has transmogrified even more dramatically. Many of you will know the name Tom Harvey from his years of running the creative agency Northern Film & Media. Having fallen victim to the cuts of the recession, Tom disappeared to London and quietly, without telling even his closest friends (of which I count myself one), became a proper writer.

Several of my friends started writing in later life. Some succeeded spectacularly (Erika Leonard, a warm, funny lady who headed up my company’s production arm back in the 1990s, quietly wrote an online novel called Fifty Shades of Grey, and changed the sexual habits of several generations). Most author-friends are less successful, reemerging from their garrets after a few years with tails between their legs and oeuvres in the pulp factory, seeking recommendations for reemployment.

Not so Tom Harvey. Overnight, he has become an award-winning playwright.

His first play, Pool, has won London’s Write Now festival for new work and his reward was to have it staged at the Jack Studio Theatre in Brockley. This tiny theatre lies so deep in South East London, my satnav blew itself up in disgust on the way. Tom’s play is far more accessible.

It’s about a group of swimming pool attendants in a rundown outdoor facility, and the play opens in May 1997, on the day Tony Blair became prime minister. New Labour’s theme tune “Things Can Only Get Better” was playing across the land; however, for people in the non-commercial, non-essential public services sector, things were about to get a whole lot worse, as the party discarded the democratic socialism of its roots and forced the nation to embrace a vision of entrepreneurial commercialism.

The motley swim crew discovers that plans are afoot to halve the leisure department’s budget and give the saving to “Culture”. This decision spells the end of the resource that ordinary poor and elderly residents of the town have enjoyed for generations. The play could have been set in a public library in 2014.

It tells the story of one member of the team’s fight against the proposed cuts. “Geordie” McCrory, an exile from Newcastle (played convincingly by Middlesbrough-born Darren Beaumont), is homeless. He lives in the attendants’ hut overnight, drinking vodka and seeing ghosts, including a German-Jewish suicide, Mr Kass, and his own father (played with a less-than-convincing Geordie accent by Alan Booty), who had climbed to the top of Simonside to die just two weeks before.

The ghosts reveal heaven to be a place full of long queues and bureaucracy, angels about to go on strike, and a God too busy and distracted to care about minor things like the welfare of his poorest subjects. Just like the government.

Pool is consistently funny, occasionally touching and sometimes sharp, with some well-rounded characters and, impressively for a 90-minute first work, a well-woven plot.

Sure, there are failings: the villain of the piece, Mr Slade, appears to have arrived from a Victorian melodrama, and is played as such by Jonathan Kemp, who ought to have known better; Trevor, the pool’s manager is weak, and so is his dialogue; but McCrory and his two main side-kicks, Steph, who had an affair with Slade, and Ashley, a black work-experience student, at first bemused by his strange colleagues, then excited by the challenge of revolution, are convinced they can beat the system. If only we could keep our public libraries open so easily.

If this sounds a little like a review, it’s meant to. This play deserves proper recognition (the London critics don’t venture as far as Brockley). It would play well at Newcastle’s Live Theatre and it even has the makings (and structure) of a warm-hearted David-vs-Goliath feature film.

This new playwright could go far. Bravo, Mr Harvey.

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