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Guest Blog: Playwright John Stanley Talks Theatre503's Homecomings

The Monkey

Homecomings is a festival of new work by prisoners and ex-prisoners, featuring Glory Whispers by Sonya Hale and The Monkey by John Stanley. In The Monkey, John paints a darkly comic portrait of dishonourable thieves bound together by addiction.

It was after completing a playwriting course run by Synergy Theatre Project at the end of 2011 that I wrote my first play, The Monkey. The play went through various stages of development and an early version was entered into a Synergy competition, in which there were over 100 entrants.

Even though it only had (what I considered to be) a temporary ending, to my utter amazement and complete surprise The Monkey won second prize. As well as being elated that my play had actually been read by some esteemed judges who liked it, I was ecstatic that I'd achieved something literary in my lifetime.

In The Monkey I try to blend just some of the traits of the many people I met during a drug-fuelled, erratic, crazy, hedonistic period of my life into the four characters that feature in the play. It started as a simple exercise on my playwriting course where you had to write down a plot or create some dialogue that might then stimulate you towards the idea for a play or even one act of a play.

I am hopeless at instant ideas and usually need forever to think those sorts of things through. We only had a couple of minutes to complete the exercise and write down what we'd thought up. All I could think of was a guy waiting for the lift at the bottom of one of the tower blocks, probably on a council estate in Bermondsey, and he wants to go up to the sixth floor to see someone he knows.

As the idea came to me at the last second I didn't even have enough time to write it down. But from that meagre beginning sprang the entire plot of The Monkey and most of it - though not the ending - was in my head by the end of the journey home that evening from Sloane Square. (The Synergy playwriting course was held in a rehearsal room at the Royal Court)

It took me a full year of weekends and free days to complete the first version of The Monkey, the version that was entered into the competition. Writing it impacted in unexpected ways on my life, mainly because of the amount of time it takes me to write. I had less time to cook, go out, see family and no time for television, except for football and an occasional film.

Finally, I had an ending in place that I was happy with; I stopped work on The Monkey and for a few months I regained my normal life. But an idea for a new piece was pervading my thoughts, so I started writing another, far more ambitious play, God's Place. My very good friend, dramaturge and all round nice guy Neil Grutchfield helped me massively, and soon after finishing God's Place I learned that Synergy had chosen The Monkey (and Sonya Hale's play, Glory Whispers) to be toured at various theatres throughout the UK as well as in London.

Unfortunately, the expected funding didn't materialise. But fast-forward to the summer of 2016 and I had a phone call from Synergy informing me that they were now in a position to produce both plays as part of their 'Homecomings' event at Theatre503 in 2017, so I returned to The Monkey to finesse it.

I believe that the best way to get a story across is to tell it in a way that people might find amusing. And The Monkey tells in a humorous way not only a story of addiction, criminality and the consequences when debts between acquaintances go unhonoured, but it also relates a story of an underbelly within our society that few outside of that circle know exist.

My view is that you should be laughing even during some of the more serious moments in The Monkey, and if you aren't then I haven't succeeded in what I set out to achieve.

The Monkey at Theatre503 on 7-18 March

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From This Author - Guest Blog: John Stanley