No Cure for Love, inspired by the music of Leonard Cohen, premieres at London’s Lion & Unicorn Theatre for three performances only from 12 to 14 August 2021 during this year’s Camden Fringe.
It’s the debut play by journalist and political consultant Emma Burnell, who also makes her directorial debut with the premiere production, starring Wendy Morgan and Stephen Russell, with musical direction by Jordan Brown.
No Cure for Love is set in a dingy backstage dressing room at the Broadstairs Folk Festival. Fading musicians Scott and Rose share space and history, flirty banter and vicious jabs. Both as lost as each other, neither of them have yet found the truth behind the love they have sung about all their lives.
We talked to Emma Burnell to find out more.
What inspired No Cure For Love?
The original idea came to me when I was actually at the Broadstairs Folk Festival a few years ago. I’d recently broken up with someone, the guy I had been seeing after my divorce! So I was feeling a bit jaded. But on the other hand, I was there with my Dad’s cousin, who had just married a lovely man while in her 60s and was clearly head over heels.
It got me thinking about love and love songs. And about the people who spend their lives giving us the language we use to talk to each other about love. Those mixtapes we exchange as excited teenagers to try and tell a boy or girl how we feel. The Spotify playlist that gets you through a rotten break-up, your shagging soundtrack. All of these things are so personal to us, but they’re written by people we will never know, however much we idolise them.
Why musicians? And why older musicians?
I basically wanted to ask the poets of my life – the ones who have written the words that have shaped my attitudes towards sex, love, passion and heartache – what love really is. Of course, I don’t get to do that. So I had to ask myself through the characters of Rose and Scott. This is my first play, and I have no illusions that it isn’t quite autobiographical. In many ways, Rose and Scott are the battle that plays out between my own cynical and romantic sides.
I wanted them to be a bit older than me for a few reasons. Partly, because the people I idolised as a teen were older than me. So it made sense that these were the people whose wisdom I would seek.
But it’s also a way of saying to myself and to everyone that being sexy doesn’t have a shelf life. Love is complicated and difficult and it probably is quite different at my age, at their age and at half my age. But we all struggle with it.
Where does Leonard Cohen fit in?
Leonard Cohen is the closest thing to God I believe in. He has a voice like chocolate wrapped in velvet and exactly the right words to talk the most beautiful, interesting women in the world into bed with him for all the years of his life.
When I was 16, I was stood up. My boyfriend was three hours late to pick me up. In a dramatic gesture, after about 2 hours I started playing my mum’s copy of “songs of Leonard Cohen” over and over again. Because I had heard he was depressing and so I thought it would be a way to show my boyfriend how much he’d hurt me. By the time he had finally arrived, I had fallen for the real love of my life. Leonard and that incredible voice.
How have you found the writing process? How does it differ from journalism?
I have a habit of taking a course about anything I want to do (you’d be amazed at the things you can do a masterclass in!). I find the discipline of a course really helpful to make sure I am progressing. So I did a couple of courses at the Central School of Speech and Drama firstly with Georgia Christou and then with Tristan Bernays. By the time I had finished the first one, I had a (not very good) first draft.
In the kind of opinion journalism I do, you often pitch a piece in the morning and are expected to turn it around in a couple of hours. I always edit each piece, but really only once. This play has been through more than a dozen drafts during lockdown. That’s an incredibly different type of writing. Going back again and again and honing. Oddly, it made me more insecure about the writing for quite a long time. But the cast have given it fresh life and fantastic energy. It feels real now.
How did you find writing the music?
Originally, I had been planning to mostly have covers – not least of Leonard Cohen songs. But we couldn’t get permission to use his work, and it would have felt weird to have covers without him in the mix.
So I started writing lyrics and asked around if anyone knew someone who could write music for me. I was incredibly lucky to find Jordan Brown, my musical director. He’s the absolute best. He took my doggerel (he kept telling me to stop writing poetry and start writing lyrics – and it was only as we went along that I learned what that meant) and made it into some fantastic songs which we worked on together over Zoom.
One of the last songs we wrote was Rose’s solo – Wishing. I wrote the lyrics in about an hour. Then Jordan and I wrote the music in a magical 20 minutes. It was like the song came to us fully formed. I’ve never felt anything like it.
What made you decide to direct the play?
The wonderful David Brady, who is the artistic director at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre (where the play is being staged) has encouraged me from day one. We don’t live too far from each other, so we went for a few lockdown walks and talked about the play. In the end, he said to me “you can see every moment of this in your head – would you really let someone else direct it?” and I realised he was right. I had visualised it all for so long, it would have been a nightmare for someone else to have to try and wrest it from me!
What do you want people to take away from the play?
I hope people enjoy it. I hope they come away humming the songs and thinking about love. I don’t know if they will want Scott and Rose to make it or not. Probably – we all love a happy ending. But there is room for romantics and cynics here.
But at the end of the day, it’s an hour-long with incredible performances by Stephen Russell and Wendy Morgan. The songs are great. And if you don’t like it, it’s above a lovely pub so there’s plenty to do as soon as it’s over.
Do you have any future plans for this production?
My original plan for this piece was to do it slightly longer and with a live band. A real “gig theatre” experience. I wanted to sell two types of tickets where people could choose to stay on to sing karaoke with the band. Obviously, on a shoestring and with all the Covid restrictions, that’s just not possible. But perhaps one day…!
What’s next for you?
I’ve started working on a very different piece of work. A dialogue between an interrogator and her and her subject. It’s quite dark – probably reflecting my lockdown mood. I can’t think too much about it while this is still at the top of my mind – I need to keep myself in sex and drugs and rock n roll for now. But when this is done, I will revisit it.
During Camden Fringe 2021, No Cure for Love runs at the Lion & Unicorn Theatre, 42-44 Gaisford St, London NW5 2ED, with performances (60 minutes) on 12 to 14 August at 7pm. Tickets are priced £12. CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!