Thank you so much for taking time to speak with us, Helen. How’s the Fringe been for you this year?
It’s been a really good year. Audiences have been amazing. Reviews have been amazing. But obviously with this project (Trojan Horse), it’s about real life people and we were really keen for them to be happy with the show we’ve made. They all saw the show and they really loved it so that was our biggest achievement of the Fringe.
Because the play’s based on a story that received quite a lot of media attention, some people might already have an inkling as to what it’s about, particularly if they’re from around Birmingham like ourselves. Without giving away too much, what’s the synopsis?
So Trojan Horse was a government enquiry into potential radicalisation that was happening in Birmingham schools. There was, like you say, a huge amount of media coverage of it and we found that it was all incredibly one-sided. It was all very inflammatory; making out that these teachers were radicalising kids. As soon as we started speaking to the people involved we realised that there was a huge amount of corruption at government level but also the press had presented this story in a false way, so the play is trying to demystify the story people might think they already know and tell other sides of the story that haven’t been in the news.
“The play is trying to demystify the story people might think they already know”
It sounds like it’s reached out to a lot of people. How special is it to you that it focuses on a story that was so detrimental to an area, in Birmingham, where you grew up?
I mean that was the biggest drive. I remember the headlines at the time not really feeling truthful to the Birmingham that I knew. I went to a school that was 75% Muslim and the idea that in any way that religion is a bad thing I found really problematic. Birmingham is always misrepresented. I feel like it gets such a bad name and this is just another example of how not only that happened but it’s never been undone really – the damage of Trojan Horse still exists with the city now.
You just always have that affinity with where you’ve grown up. So the accusations were made in 2014. Why, four years on, do you still think it’s relevant to re-explore the story?
It’s amazing how one of the issues we’ve had is that its almost felt like it’s too soon. 2014 sounds like a long time ago but actually the trials only finished in 2016. Even now, there’re still verdicts coming out. We could never have covered the case at the time. We would’ve been called terrorists. It genuinely has taken that amount of time to have the ability to stand up on the side of those teachers and governors. It’s also taken that amount of time for people to feel like they’re able to talk about it.
You and your co-writer, Matt Woodhead, have worked closely together before. How have those experiences helped you through the writing process?
That is such a good question. This has been the most challenging project we’ve ever done. We’ve had to live, sleep and breathe this project. We’ve been all around the country interviewing people, often doing interviews that have gone on until two in the morning and then having to get up very early to meet somebody at the House of Lords who can only meet before their 8am meeting. So it’s relied on quite a lot of together time. Also I valued having somebody who really wants to make work for the right reasons. We’ve never had to have any conversations about the angle we’re taking – we’re quite politically aligned.
“We’ve had to live, sleep and breathe this project”
That partnership seems to have paid off for you. So you’ve worked on some brilliant projects that lots of people know about with some top professionals. How does it compare to co-writing a production that has received so much positivity about a story you feel so strongly about?
It is a really different thing. There is a different sense of ownership over something when you’ve written it, particularly when it’s real-life as well. You have a lot more accountability. Not to discredit acting but it’s more freeing. It’s your baby but definitely with the other stuff I’ve done, it’s given me a huge amount of confidence.
Theatre-wise and beyond, what’s the plan for you once you finish in Edinburgh?
With Trojan Horse, we’re desperate to take it to Birmingham. It’s where it needs to be. We hope to do that as part of a national tour.
So could we see Trojan Horse back next year then?
We hope so. It will definitely have a life when it ends. What else? I’m in Upstart Crow next week which is the third series of the sitcom. I’m excited for a sleep after the Fringe though – that’s the first priority!
Trojan Horse had it’s last performance at Summerhall on August 26th. More information can be found here.
Image: Knight Hall Agency
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