It’s been a long road to the stage for Es and Flo, an original play by director and producer, turned writer, Jennifer Lunn. Coloured with memories of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, the play celebrates the love of an older lesbian relationship and women coming together to fight for what’s right. As the play prepares to open at the Wales Millennium Centre later this month, Emma Schofield sat down with Jennifer Lunn to find out more.
Emma Schofield: How does it feel to know that Es and Flo is going to be performed in just a few weeks? Because there’s been such a lengthy build-up to this. It’s quite an unusual position to be in in many ways because the play’s already won the Popcorn New Writing Award and the Nancy Dean Lesbian Playwriting Award.
Jennifer Lunn: Yeah, I started writing it about 10 years ago and it was strange for me, because I wasn’t a writer, I was a director and a producer. I had an idea for a story that I really liked and I said to my wife, I’d love to see a story about some older lesbians, and maybe, you know, one of them’s got a secret, and someone comes into their lives and that changes everything. My wife said, “well, no one else is going to write that. You’ll have to write it”, and so I just started dabbling in writing it. There wasn’t a clear plan, I didn’t think to myself, right, I’m gonna sit down and change my career to writing. I sort of started very slowly, writing little scenes and getting friend to read some of them and give me feedback. I was lucky because I had friends who were prepared to do that for me and who were really encouraging.
Then eventually my wife, she’s really encouraging, sent me off on a week-long course entitled something like Finish Your Play. That was really interesting, because I’d written sort of the first half at that point, and didn’t know what the second half was going to look like. It took lots of strange turns, I was saying to the cast the other day that there was one version where the whole second half was set in a layby, with a car that had broken down. The production manager was like, “I’m really glad that’s not what we’ve got to work with!”. Eventually, a draft went in for some awards in 2017. That was also a very different way from what it is now; it had an extra character in it, it actually had a man in it, wow, yeah, he’s gone. Then it got shortlisted for the Verity Bargate Award, which is how Graeme from WMC discovered it, because he was on the panel. He had a personal connection to dementia and wanted to work on this, so it was developed a bit here in 2018 and originally, it was going to be on in 2019. Then we obviously postponed through the summer of 2020.
Emma Schofield: It must have been difficult to come so close to actually seeing it on stage, and then have that taken away.
Jennifer Lunn: Oh, my gosh, yes. We’d got to the point where we were having production meetings and talking about design, and we were just about to, you know, set up this great cast. Then, about three years ago, that was it, everything shut down. It’s taken a little bit of time, again, to get to a place where we felt we could actually do it, but the team here have been amazing. And actually, the group of people that we have now working on it feels so perfect. So as much as I’m like, oh, it’s taken such a long time to get to here, I also feel like it’s got to the right place now.
Emma Schofield: Does it feel like there’s some pressure to get this right, because of everything that’s happened to get to this point?
Jennifer Lunn: Oh, gosh, yes. There’s a bit of hype, but it just kind of snuck it in. I’m really noticing it most when I’m in the room and you can kind of sense that the wait has been so long and the pressure is there, but there’s also so much excitement too. was already. It’s funny because I’ve worked in theatre all my life and I’ve directed and produced things and I know what a rehearsal process is like, but with this, I’m constantly going, “shall I change it? Do I need to change it? Is it is it wrong? Is it bad?”. I can’t help it because it’s such a different experience to be on the writing side of it. At the same time, it’s also magical to see it, because it’s lived in my head for such a long time and to see the actors doing an amazing job of making it come alive is really extraordinary.
It’s such a privilege. I don’t think I’d ever really appreciated quite what the feeling would be like, as a writer, when you look around the rehearsal room and think everyone’s here for this play. It’s really thrilling and, of course it’s going to London as well and that’s added another element to it.
Emma Schofield: I think that’s one of those things that kind of gets people’s attention. When you suddenly say that a play is going to London, people do suddenly seem to take it that little bit more seriously. It’s a shame in some ways that we still have that approach to how we place a value on theatre from Wales. On the other hand, it’s great for a play to be getting that attention.
Jennifer Lunn: It is extraordinary. The way I’m trying to think of it is that it means that more people will be able to see it. I hope it’s a really nice thing for the Wales Millennium Centre, as well, because of the care that they’ve taken with this and the way that they’ve stuck by it through thick and thin. It’s amazing to have it here in Cardiff and the play is set in Cardiff, you know, it talks about Greenham and the Greenham Common protests, which of course, all started with a march from Cardiff, so all of this feels right. I feel very proud that it’s starting here, but I’m also really thrilled that we get to take the work of this amazing building, and organisation, and take it out and say “look at what we’re doing” to a wider audience.
Emma Schofield: It’s lovely to see something original coming out of here as well, because I think generally, there’s this perception that this is a great venue, but it does musicals, and it does the big shows and the touring productions. There’s less focus on the original content that’s coming out, but that really deserves to get more attention.
Jennifer Lunn: No, and I think we’ve been very lucky with the transfer to London, but I also think that Es and Flo is a really universal story and it hopefully captures people’s imaginations. What I really hope is true about the play is that everybody is very well rounded. That’s how life is; relationships, health, politics, friendships, all of that gets mixed in together and it was so important to me to write about a really diverse group of women, so to have women who were all experiencing different things, and one of them is eight, and one of them is 71, but it doesn’t matter. They’re women who are coming from different places and their lived experience is different and the play brings all of that together.
Emma Schofield: I like the idea of putting that mix together, so this is a play that isn’t just about one age group or set of experiences, it draws them all together.
Jennifer Lunn: They’re all in there together. That’s how it is in terms of Greenham for me too, it’s like I always say that it’s not really a play about Greenham Common.
Emma Schofield: No, but that context is important.
Jennifer Lunn: It is and, for me, the play is a kind of, like an analogy or a microcosm of representing what Greenham was, because Greenham was a group of predominantly women, who came together to fight a crisis that was happening, which was that these nuclear weapons were going to be brought to England. In the process of doing that, something else happened, those women and their families discovered the ability to live differently. They discovered themselves and they started to go, “oh, okay, we don’t have to live in the way that we’ve always been told we have to. There are other options, you know, and quite literally, I don’t have to live at home with my husband and my kids, I can go and live in a tent, in the woods with these other women”.
We were talking about it in rehearsals and talking about it to the kids in the show, who, of course, have never really even heard about it. So we were just talking about how women in the 80s were on that cusp of beginning to get their own freedom. I mean, thinking back, it was the late 70s, early 80s, before women could have a credit card without their husband’s permission and all of that kind of thing. When you think about it, there wasn’t the internet, and there weren’t those ways of finding out what was going on, so something like Greenham where all these women were suddenly in one place together was incredible really. They also learned so much from each other and I think that’s what happens in the play; these women come together, and they’re all different, but they all learn about themselves and each other, and they grow from that, and they become this family. All of the characters have big a journey, everybody is learning, everybody is changing. Everybody starts the play with a secret and then everybody’s secret kind of gets exploded a little bit!
Emma Schofield: Without having seen it yet it seems like it’s that sense of connection that’s holding the whole play together. With secrets it’s often like a chain reaction, so if something comes out, other people around that react to it and, in turn, their own secrets start to spill out. People’s stories are at the heart of it.
Jennifer Lunn: Yeah. The play centres on the influence of a little girl and I was saying to the kids in rehearsal the other day that she’s kind of magic. She’s like the catalyst for everything that happens because the character is eight and she’s still at that point where she just speaks truth without thinking of the consequences. She just says what she sees and thinks and what that does for the other characters is to sort of open up their truths for them. It’s really brilliant having a kid in amongst everything!
Emma Schofield: I suppose we lose that freedom of truth as we develop a filter and we become almost fearful of the consequences that telling the truth might have.
Jennifer Lunn: Yes. I think we spend a lot of time worrying about other people and there’s something really powerful about having a kid who just says it as it is, and actually, it really pushes that character and the story forward in the play, because she because she makes the other characters think.
Emma Schofield: It’s the same story, but seen through a different set of eyes?
Jennifer Lunn: Yeah, absolutely and, you know, that’s really, really joyful. The girls are just glorious too. It’s such a lovely thing to have them in the rehearsal room as well.
Emma Schofield: And a great experience for them, being part of a cast for something like this. An all-female cast and predominantly female creative team; that’s a heck of an experience to have so early in your career!
Jennifer Lunn: It is! I think it’s quite unusual what we’ve done like that, it was a big deal to write a show that was just five women. Like I said, there was an earlier draft that had a man in it, partly because people had said, “Oh, I think we need to hear from the man”, but when I thought about it, I wondered if we really needed to. And actually, what I love now about the play is that you’re watching these women sort of come together to deal with everything and you know, there is very much a male character there, he isn’t in the play, but he’s very much there. He’s very present. But not only have we got this cast of five women, we’ve also got an incredible creative team, which is almost entirely female-led. It’s really wonderful and it just feels like, like an amazing project to be part of. And as you say, I hope those girls, kind of come away going “oh, yeah, this is how it things could be”.
Es and Flo will play at the Wales Millennium Centre from the 28th April – 13th May. Further information, and tickets, are available here.
Es and Flo Es and Flo Es and Flo Es and Flo Es and Flo Es and Flo