A couple of months ago, I wrote a piece about our upcoming production of GUINEA PIGS, a new play highlighting the emotional and physical legacy of Britain’s nuclear tests.
Well, we did it! GUINEA PIGS had its premiere at The Space in London as part of a hugely encouraging 5-night launch.
Putting your own creative work out there for public scrutiny is extremely exposing. As actors, we do it all the time; right from drama school where for three years of training we are constantly scrutinised, right through to the rejection of casting after casting for the entirety of our careers. We get pretty robust. But GUINEA PIGS was exposing on a whole other level.
It was the first time I have ever written a full-length play, let alone produce it, perform in it and do every other job including fund-raising, marketing, design, sound design, tea-maker, diplomatic relations and agony aunt. Added to this is the semi-autobiographical nature of the play and its deeply personal subject matter to not only myself and my family but also to the whole of the nuclear community – I was not only exposing myself as an actor and writer within the creative context but also to scrutiny from fellow test veteran families. To call it intense is an understatement!
The seeds for GUINEA PIGS had developed from a 5-minute stand-up comedy set I performed in 2018, which then grew into a longer solo show. At this stage, it had nothing to do with the nuclear tests but as I wrote my focus shifted to my dad and the loss of him almost 20 years ago, an event that had a dramatic impact on my life. I eventually landed on thoughts around my teenage relationship with Dad and thus my relationship with the nuclear tests through my relationship with him.
One thing I’ve come to appreciate is how our test veteran community is a diverse group; through our personal experience, our values and beliefs, our politics, our relationship to the tests and with our parents – how all of that influences how we think and feel about it today and our opinion on what needs to happen next.
Take the medal campaign, for example; had Dad been issued with a medal when he was 19, I’ve no doubt he would have been as pleased as punch but if he was alive today, he’d be very much against. Too much water under the bridge, too many men gone before receiving it. I feel the same way. But I also recognise and respect there are many others who will draw great comfort from receiving a medal. Like I said, we are a diverse group.
I knew that in one play I couldn’t possibly attempt to speak for all of us and so I wasn’t going to even try. All I could do was shine a light on the test veterans by telling my truth and my story about growing up with a nuclear test vet dad and about being a young girl who was witness to the impact the tests and the early days of the BNTVA struggle had on him. So that was the story I was going to tell, and it became GUINEA PIGS.
Out of respect for my family’s privacy, I wrote an entirely fictional story about fictional characters whilst borrowing heavily from my parents’ story and my own experiences. My dad was very similar to Gerry and also nothing like him, as I was very similar to younger Coral and also nothing like her.
The arts are an industry where people are hugely under-valued. We are often expected to work for free and when paid, it is low pay – so I had vowed early on that anybody involved in the play would be properly paid (and managed it for everyone but myself!) In doing so, I made a rod for my own back as this significantly increased the cost of production. There’s a reason why one-person shows are so popular! It’s also why my workload was so intense because I had to learn to do the roles I couldn’t afford to pay.
In the spring we were programmed by The Space in London for its autumn season to coincide with the anniversary of Operation Hurricane. Having begun its life as a chapel in the old docklands of the Isle of Dogs, The Space is a lovely, characterful theatre and the team there are hugely supportive whilst running it on next to nothing – it’s a little ramshackle and low-tech, though perfect for a low-key launch.
The only downside is its location and not having a natural local audience. It can be difficult to entice people there from other parts of London.
After 6 months of seriously hard work, what if we ended up performing to an audience of 2 people?
I’m incredibly grateful to work with some great professionals and very proud of what we achieved; Jonny Emmett playing Gerry, Caron Kehoe playing Aunty Maureen and brilliantly portraying a thousand other bit parts, Zoë Browne who collated costume, props and set, Kitty Van der Hoven our lighting and sound technician and Laura Kirman who stepped in as director at the eleventh hour and did a brilliant job.
I think it’s fair to say we achieved what we set out to achieve:
We were able to get some press and social media interest and despite two days of national rail strikes and one night where the entire DLR (Dockland Light Rail) was down, we completely filled the theatre on all but one night. The Space bar manager was also very pleased – new writing pieces are generally much shorter and don’t have an interval!
In the same house, we had former Greenham Common protesters and CND members along with test veterans and their descendants and members of the wider veteran community. We had people both for and against the nuclear deterrent, people in their 20s and 30s, as young as 15 and right up to the older generations. People who remembered the tests, people who remembered the 80s and people for whom both eras are part of a distant past from before they were born.
Some had never heard of the nuclear tests and were moved by the story and some audience members have been directly affected by the tests. This is exactly what I wanted – for the story to spread and for the nuclear community to feel seen. We’re extremely grateful to the NCCF (Nuclear Community Charity Fund) who paid for a number of London-based members of the nuclear community to see the show.
The loveliest comment came from a woman whose father was on Christmas Island and died when she was just 15 years old. Now in her 60s, she had never before engaged with the nuclear test veteran community or campaign. Her words to me were, “I feel as though I know and understand my dad much better as a result of this play.” She brought her family back to see the show, saying it was a piece of her history she had never discussed with them before.
Writing that makes me well up again. You see the power of theatre? That’s why we do this. That’s why the arts are important.
The play was also a huge learning curve and I have two main regrets that as a note-to-self will improve upon in future runs:
Firstly, as an actor I wasn’t happy with my own performance. Ironically, it’s the only thing I am actually qualified and trained for! I was just so busy with everything else all the way through that I just didn’t have the space to do the character work I wanted to do and nail the role as I could have – I’m told this is a common problem for people who self-produce a full theatre or film production in which they are also performing.
Secondly, on our live-stream night we had a post-show Q&A that on review I wasn’t happy with. Ceri McDade of the BNTVA had kindly agreed to participate and with some test veterans and descendants in the audience that night but they weren’t given an opportunity to speak, which I deeply regret – especially as I can now see from the live-stream that some hands were raised to contribute. The topic of the Q&A went off at a tangent and it’s clear in future that it needs an experienced hand to MC these things (and stop me from rambling on!)
Equally, some of the older veterans had difficulty hearing and I want to make sure the play is accessible to them.
The cost of captioning services for theatre is exorbitant and I had unsuccessfully applied for Arts Council Funding to cover this – but it’s something I’ll try to address moving forwards.
So what’s next?
Well, a bit of a rest first! Then maybe some rewrites and in the new year, we will be looking at producing a national tour of GUINEA PIGS. That will need significant funding and producing a tour will be a massive piece of work, which I definitely won’t be able to pull off on my own. But as it was always my ultimate aim for the play to be seen and for profile of the nuclear community to be raised across the UK and not just in London – watch this space.
If there is any justice, Guinea Pigs will be back on stage in the near future (5 stars)Breaking the Fourth Wall
An absolute Gem (5 stars)Dress Circle Reviews
Always watchable and incredibly importantBritish Theatre Guide
Every element is considered, leaving the audience galvanised into an acute understanding of the injustice that still affects real people living today (4 stars)The Reviews Hub
As soon as information regarding a Guinea Pigs national tour is available we will report it online and in the magazine.
All Photographs – Damian McFadden – www.damianmcfadden.com