Jack Thorne was living in Luton when he got the idea to write Bunny, his searing one-woman play that is revived this week at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow in a new production by Paul Brotherston. More specifically, the Bristol-born writer was standing in the queue of his local post-office in the town he’d moved to because London was too pricey when the out-and-out weirdness of the place hit home.
“Luton’s a really strange town,” says Thorne. “I lived there for seven or eight years, and it’s really weird how divided it is. It’s quite insular in its politics, and obviously it’s the birthplace of the English Defence League, who’ve done a lot of damage to it.
“I was standing in the post office, which was run by a lovely Pakistani gentleman, and in front of me was someone wearing an EDL badge, and I just wondered how they could go in there like that. It was the same when I first moved there, and the estate agent was showing me round the property, and we were talking about the election that was coming up, and he said there were too many Pakistanis. I suppose with Bunny I was trying to look at all that in a non-patronising way, and not try and give answers, because I’m no good at that, but just try and pose some questions.”
The result of this in Bunny is a roller-coaster ride of a play seen through the eyes of 18-year-old Katie, who, after her older boyfriend is attacked on the street, is launched into a high-speed joyride through a town at war with its multi-cultural heart en route to a bruising rites of passage. On one level, the play sounds as light years away from Thorne’s recent TV dramas, National Treasure and Kiri, as it does from the West End smash hit, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which Thorne co-wrote with director John Tiffany and Potter creator JK Rowling. Yet despite such successes, Bunny sounds quite close to home.
“There’s a lot of me in Katie,” says Thorne of a character played here by Anna Russell-Martin. “She’s someone who’s instinctively an outsider, but who is also instinctively annoyed at being that outsider. Those two things are both pretty important to me.”
Born in Bristol, Thorne’s parents were am-dram enthusiasts, with his father’s scripting of the annual pantomime presaging his own involvement in theatre. The family later moved to leafy Berkshire, where his TV series, Glue, was set. While studying politics at Cambridge, Thorne joined the drama society. He took part in a masterclass with Tiffany, the former Traverse Theatre literary director and National Theatre of Scotland associate director whose relationship with new work had previously seen him direct the likes of Gagarin Way and Black Watch, both by Gregory Burke.
Prior to Harry Potter, Tiffany would go on to direct Thorne’s stage adaptation of Swedish writer John Ayvide Lindqvist’s teenage vampire novel, Let the Right One In, for the National Theatre of Scotland. Thorne’s TV career began after an early stage play was seen by Jamie Brittain, who, alongside his Dalkeith-born father and former theatre director Brian Elsley, created cutting-edge teen-drama, Skins. Brittain and Elsley hired him to write for the show, and work on Shameless and This is England followed before he created two series of his own, The Fades and Glue.
Bunny was first seen in 2010 on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe before opening in London at Soho Theatre. The play conflates many of Thorne’s pre-occupations as a writer, from the underclass grit of Shameless to the unruly youth Skins and This is England. Like them, Glue was set among a group of teenage friends, but with extra added murder. Thorne has tapped into the fears of youth in fantastical ways as well, onstage with Let the Right One in, and onscreen with The Fades, which focused on a teenage boy who could see the spirits of the dead. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, of course, attracted audiences of all ages. Time, however, has moved on since Katie first burst onto the stage in eight years ago in Bunny.
“I’ve always enjoyed writing for young people,” a now 39-year-old Thorne says, “but I think I’ve done less of it recently, probably because I don’t think I understand Snapchat and stuff like that. If I did Bunny again now, I’d have to set it in the past or in a fantasy world where people were confused about identity. It takes a young person to worry about that.”
This may well be the case, but Bunny is hardly kid’s stuff, and taps into much of the frustration that existed in areas such as Luton that eventually bore what is currently turning out to be some pretty bitter fruit.
“Obviously the result of the Brexit vote has changed a lot of stuff,” says Thorne. “I think Luton is a place dealing with a lot of the questions Brexit was about, and the result was a bit of a surprise in London, but less so in some other places where there was a real sense of disenfranchisement.”
Thorne likens the world of Bunny to that depicted in Kira, his recent four-part drama, which looks at the fall-out following the murder of a four-year-old black girl in care.
“In a way, doing Kiri is a similar sort of project to Bunny,” he says. “What was interesting about Kiri is that it’s the project I probably got the most abuse about on Twitter. There was a character called Alice, who was this little girl’s foster mum, and was played by Lia Williams, and lots of people had real problems with her. She’s troubled, but there was some real vitriol aimed at her.”
Beyond the Tron’s revival of Bunny and the Broadway run of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Thorne, among numerous things in development is a TV adaptation of Philip Pullman’s novel, His Dark Materials. Onstage, Thorne will stay stateside to work on a musical of King Kong, the much-loved giant ape who took Hollywood by storm in 1933.
“I’m going to be working with a massive animatronic gorilla,” says Thorne.
While he was in Luton, Thorne saw this disenfranchisement first-hand while out canvassing for his local Labour Party. Some of the experience was later channelled into his stage play, Hope, at the Royal Court Theatre in London, another collaboration with Tiffany, which saw Thorne take a look at austerity culture at the frontline of local authority cuts. Bunny may not be so expansive in reach, but the world Katie opens up shows up the fault-lines that exist in communities that co-exist in places like Luton.
“You think you know a place,” says Thorne, “but doing door to door, you see people you didn’t know about, and attitudes you didn’t know about. You’re talking to UKIP and EDL supporters, and it’s that discontent and anger that comes out of that experience that this play is trying to talk about, which is about people who might have voted for Brexit. We all live in a bubble, and it is a Brexit play in that sense, I think. It’s about how the post-industrial world has alienated a whole set of people, and what that means.”
Bunny, Tron Theatre, Glasgow until April 7.
The Herald, March 29th 2018