Guest Blog: Joyce Branagh On THE THUNDER GIRLS
In theatre, the roles for women over 40 are shockingly small. And I mean both in their abundance and in the juiciness of role. Many plays seem to only include 'older women' as adjuncts to the main characters - mums, neighbours, wives... And with so little to say these characters often seem two-dimensional, or they become mere information vehicles. They're often only there to give an insight into the main (younger and often male) protagonist's character.
The Thunder Girls, with a cast of four fiercely independent women - all over the age of 40 - is an unusual gem. These women all have rounded characters, intriguing story arcs and (thank goodness) they are not all unrelentingly 'strong'. They are wonderfully flawed - with ambition, self-pity, lack of empathy and straight-down-the-line bitchiness - as well as being driven, and intelligent, loving and downright bloody FUNNY. They are complicated and intriguing - as are all good dramatic leads.
And they are all working class. I don't know if anyone's looked into the statistics on female working-class characters in stage plays, but according to Tonic Theatre's research four years ago, only 37% of roles on stage are female. If we then reduce that figure to roles for the over-40s, and then reduce it again to include just the leading roles... well, what kind of percentage is 'female, over 40, leading role, working class' going to be? Very low indeed.
With 65% of tickets being bought by women, and the average age of most theatregoers well over 40, surely this is a demographic we should be paying attention to - if only to get their cash. It seems blindingly obvious that these are women we should be writing about. Why aren't we giving these glorious ticket-buyers more stories that relate directly to them - their lives, their worries, their interests?
As an industry, we purport to be endeavouring to get working-class audiences into the theatre. We don't want to drive away the middle class, but instead spread our reach, share our enthusiasm for the live experience. We want to entice those who have felt that 'theatre is not for them' - and what better way than by having working-class characters central to the narrative on stage?
With The Thunder Girls, the subject matter is immediately accessible and ferociously female - an all-girl pop band who were big in the 80s, had an acrimonious split and who then come together for 'the reunion dinner from hell'. They are all 'working-class girls made good': they were a rags to riches tale, but then they fell from the giddy heights of fame. The story already has grittiness, glamour, poverty and boundless wealth - all of it within a tight-knit female friendship group.
Watching Kathy's Burke's amazing documentary series All Woman (and if you haven't seen it yet DO), I was struck by one interviewee who said that as women, we are set on a course at an early age to try and find 'the one'. That perfect partner who we will be with for life. But in reality, for most of us, it is our female friends who embody our lifetime relationships - it is our mates who are there long before the boys come along, and they are the ones that are still there when the marriages end. So why not have a play that, whilst it talks about husbands and lovers, actually centres itself on the women's friendships - and celebrate that?
Despite outward appearances, the Branaghs were not a 'theatre' family. My dad was a joiner and my mum worked part-time in a factory. Even when my dad set up his own business and the family had a bit of cash, we never went to the theatre - it just wasn't a thing we did. We watched telly (a lot of telly to be honest), and very occasionally went to the cinema.
When my brother started being in plays, we went to see him, but my parents would always look awkward as soon as they stepped through the door to the auditorium. They felt that they didn't belong, that they might not understand the play or know when to laugh, that they wouldn't be wearing the right clothes... I think this has always made me feel very passionately that we want to tempt people like my folks to give theatre a try, but we have to do it with stories they can relate to.
And so that's what drew me to direct The Thunder Girls: a story with four interesting, juicy female roles, which concerns older women and their stories, is about coming from a working-class background, has a glamour and an accessibility to attract a first-time theatre audience, and above all provides a great evening's entertainment. I know it won't be everyone's cup of tea - I know that. But I also know my mum would have bloody loved it.
The Thunder Girls runs at The Lowry 24-28 September. Keep an eye out on thundergirls.co.uk for more information about what's next!
Photo credit: Robert Martin