Originally premiered last year as part of Paines Plough’s acclaimed Roundabout Season, May Queen returns to Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre for a strictly limited season. Midlands writer Frankie Meredith tells us more about the modern folk tale and how growing up in Coventry influenced it. Time to get booking!
May Queen has a strictly limited at Belgrade Theatre’s B2 from 25 June to 2 July 2022, newly restaged in-the-round with Yasmin Dawes reprising her acclaimed performance as Leigh and Balisha Karra, one of the Belgrade’s three co-artistic directors for the City of Culture Year, directing.
May Day in Coventry, 2022. Sixteen-year-old Leigh has been chosen as May Queen. She’s buzzin’, as is the rest of the city. The cider is flowing and St George’s flag is flying – but during Cov’s festivities, our Queen is inevitably toppled.
As the year moves on in the City of Peace and Reconciliation, Leigh must face up to the events of that hot May Day and dig deep within her past and our city’s history to ask – how did she get here? And how does she get out?
May Queen is presented by the Belgrade Theatre in co-production with Paines Plough, supported by Coventry City of Culture Trust.
In conversation with Frankie Meredith
Playwright Frankie Meredith is a Paines Plough Big Room Fellow, an alumna of the Soho Young Writers Lab 2015, and a graduate of the Lyric Young Writers Programme 2013, whose works include Turkey (The Hope Theatre, 2017), Finding Peter (Theatre N16, 2018), The Olive Trade (Southwark Playhouse, 2016) 17 (longlisted for the Bruntwood Prize 2019), Clementines (2019), Becoming Danish (web series developed through the BBC Writers Room /Ideas Tap, 2020), City Boys (Southwark Playhouse, 2015), The Ballad of Tab and Sal (Old Red Lion, 2015), Monkey (Waterloo East, 2016). Her focuses in her career include championing Midlands-based stories and creatives, combating elitism and inaccessibility in theatre.
How did the commission of May Queen come about?
The commission came about because I had previously worked with Balisha Karra, one of the Co-Artistic Directors for the Belgrade during Coventry’s year as City of Culture. We worked together on a play called Seventeen back in 2019. She got in touch and asked if I would like to pitch some ideas to Paines Plough for Roundabout. So I did that, and they liked my idea of May Queen.
I’d also built a relationship with Paines Plough through their playwright fellow in 2019, so it felt great to be able to work on something with them.
Where did the inspiration for May Queen come from?
The idea was really rooted in Coventry. It was actually originally called Cofa’s Tree, which is the historical name for Coventry, but we changed the name so it became much more about Leigh, the main character. The inspiration came from telling female stories and telling their truth. It’s got a lot to do with how folklore is spoken about nowadays, the way we tell our stories, who believes us and who doesn’t.
What are the main themes of May Queen?
The themes of May Queen are Coventry, consent, lack of consent, folklore, growing up. I spent my teenage years in Coventry which is why when I focused on writing a play set there it had to be told by a teenage character. It’s a lot to do with growing up and finding out who you are.
What is the significance of history & folklore in the story?
There is a huge significance of folklore. It’s a lot about how women have been treated and how women are believed or not believed. It’s sort of like a modern folk tale.
What are your connections to Coventry?
I spent a lot of my teenage years in Coventry, close to Wood End, and it’s very much built up who I am today.
When it came to writing a play based in Coventry, it just felt right that it was going to be told by a teenage girl because I think that is so much of my relationship with the city. I was Coventry City Soccerette in 2010, so that’s an interesting fact. My Dad gave me a blue Coventry City elephant when I was born even though I was a girl, smashing those gender stereotypes early. Elephants are actually quite a big thing in this play as well, I’ve just made that connection.
What has it been like to work in a predominantly female team?
It creates a really safe space. Some of the themes that this play tackles are quite uncomfortable about consent and abuse. Balisha set up this gorgeous, safe space in the Roundabout circle. I kind of popped in at the beginning but then just left them to it. It was a really creative, equal and very fair, gentle rehearsal space because it had to be.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the play?
I hope audiences will take away whatever it stirs up inside them. We’ve had some quite visceral reactions so far, even during the rehearsal process. I think some people might get a bit angry though there are funny bits too. I think it’s really important to take away how valid women’s stories are and teenage women’s stories as well.
This is a bit rogue, but I was watching a Kate Nash documentary, which funnily enough May Queen’s director Balisha was also watching, though we didn’t know that at the time. Kate Nash’s fanbase is made up largely of teenage girls, and she says ‘I hate that people see teenage girls as silly because they are so important, there’s nothing more important than teenage girls.’ I think that’s really true for this.