Ben Aitken is a young and upcoming playwright who’s second play The Cafe is making it’s London debut next week in Islington (19 March- 6 April). The play is being put on in association with The Old Red Lion Theatre in Angel and is being performed in an actual cafe in the shape of the Coffee Works Project on Islington High Street.
The Cafe is a political comedy about austerity, very appropriate and topical at the present time, wherein the owner of a café affected by bad economic conditions, has some very difficult decisions to make and, he knows that, once he makes them, he will have to weather the rebellion of his multicultural workforce. Austerity soon breeds contempt as his Marx-loving waiter tries to organise a strike. Will he convince a Turk, a Pole and an ex-miner from Bradford that striking is the way forward? This political comedy puts the Coalition in the kitchen.
The Cafe was first performed at The Brighton fringe last year, again in a cafe, that time in the shape of Metrodeco Cafe. The Stage said of that production ‘Bitter sweet social observation… the direction matches the sparkle of his script.’
What was the inspiration behind The Cafe?
Working for below minimum wage in a cafe in Australia. The place was owned and managed by a guy who used to be a general in the Lebanese Army. He seemed to think the two jobs required the same skill-set. He got into a fight with a Sri Lankan kitchen porter who had a PhD in Molecular Biology. The working environment struck me as inherently dramatic.
What are the main themes behind the play? What is it trying to say?
The play emerges from a particular environment, and then builds on that environment’s rhythms and logic and hierarchies. It takes a modest human narrative involving a disgruntled waiter, and then teases it out amid the charm and chaos of his working arena, before putting a cat amongst the pigeons in the form of a trialling waitress. The six characters all have distinct, and often imperfect, takes on the world around them. The play’s voice as a whole, then, is carefully discordant.
Who are your influences in playwriting?
I started writing drama having hardly read any. I was about to apply for a PhD in Literature when I realised I didn’t like the idea of one computer and one city and one thesis for three years. I wanted to work in a more vital and protean medium. So I’m not sure about dramatic influences. I don’t tend to re-read writers or get bogged down in their oeuvres. I’m not at all conscious of who I’m emulating, or whose work or style has prompted me to start a new project, or to write a particular scene, or to have a character phrase something in a certain way.
How do you write/ what is your creative process?
I’ve only written two plays so I can’t claim to have a set creative process involving a morning jog, several macchiatos and Wagner. But I guess there’s symmetry between how I went about both plays, starting with scraps of scribbled paper which somehow become a 300-page first draft, which is then slowly chiselled until its shape is leaner and smarter and more convincing. And then I tend to start throwing the script around, desperate for anyone to tell me it’s half-decent. But this is always a mistake. There is always another two drafts to go before the script is worth showing anyone.
What is it like seeing your writing being performed and coming to life on stage?
It depends what happens on the stage. Your writing is in the hands of the actors and the director. They can make you sound and look better or worse than you feel you are. But the whole thing is undeniably exciting. And when one senses that their work is in the hands of a very skilful director and cast – as I feel now – one certainly feels more at ease.
Do you see any of yourself in any of your characters?
I’d love to think I have some of the Turkish chef’s wit; and some of the Polish kitchen porter’s forbearance; and some of the cafe owner’s candour. But I suspect I don’t. I suspect a writer’s characters are for the most part a composite of who they want to be, rather than who they are.
What are the challenges with producing a site-specific play?
Just about everything. Dealing with the theatre (in this case the Old Red Lion), dealing with the cafe, dealing with Islington Council, dealing with the sight-lines, the seating, the dangling hams and the noisy fridges. But the rewards justify the hurdles. There’s an intensity to site-specific work which is hard to achieve in a regular theatre space. And I must say, both the Old Red Lion Theatre and The CoffeeWorks Project in Angel have been brilliant to deal with.
How is this production different from the play’s first outing at the Brighton fringe?
The script is better, for sure. It lost about 30 pages and yet the story got stronger, which tells you how valuable a decent re-drafting period is. The cast is professional and more experienced, and in Josh Roche we’ve a director who has the potential to go to the top of his game. And the run is three weeks (March 19 – April 6) which is certainly a step-up.
What are you reading at the moment?
A rather dull biography of Adam Smith, the philosopher and economist. I was hoping to learn about morality and how to get rich quickly, but mostly learnt that Edinburgh has bad weather.
Any other plays planned? What are your plans for the future?
I’d love someone from the National Theatre of Vietnam to see the production and offer to run it indefinitely in Hannoi with generous remuneration for all involved. If that doesn’t happen, I’ll start researching my next play, which will again start with an environment and work outwards, this time a Job Centre. I hope to secure some funding and do a series of performances in Job Centres around the country, perhaps finding one or two unlikely actors among those signing on. I might even cast myself.