Watching a stretch of the London Marathon near his home in Wapping got writer-director Mark Heywood wondering about what’s happened to the city’s East End and inspired his new play Rhubarb Ghetto. It premieres next month at VAULT Festival. Check out our interview and behind-the-scenes photos – and then get booking!
Rhubarb Ghetto, presented by inkjockey ltd, runs for six performances only from 12 to 16 February 2020 at The Vaults. To access Mark Heywood’s new play that centres around a London underpass, theatregoers will access The Vaults via Leake Street’s own, famous graffiti-festooned underpass.
Billy is a gang leader tying up loose ends before disappearing to escape the clutches of a mysterious character named Pavel. Scarlet is the mother of their 15-year-old child.
Rhubarb Ghetto is an intimate portrayal of a relationship two decades in the making. It looks at choices and lost opportunities. It poses uncertain futures for the characters against the backdrop of life in London where rich and poor live side by side. It looks at the turf-war at the heart of the capital and the gentrification that has replaced council estates with hipsters, coffee culture, and urban allotment.
Meet the cast
Rhubarb Ghetto stars Damian Lynch, currently in the West End in Mischief Theatre’s The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, and Izabella Urbanowicz, whose recent credits include The Night Watch.
What’s been happening behind the scenes with the cast, director and assistant director Hetty Hodgson?
Talking to… Mark Heywood
Rhubarb Ghetto is written and directed by Mark Heywood, co-writer of the best-selling Cordoba mystery novels by the pseudonymous Mark Dewar.
How big a problem do you think inequality is in London?
Inequality is a problem everywhere. Not just in London. Living here, I guess I notice it more, but when I travel I see it everywhere. I grew up in Manchester. I’ve worked in Asia, Europe, and the US. I was in Los Angeles over Christmas and New Year, and in the 18 months since I was last there, the homeless situation has deteriorated. Nearly 20% increase in a year.
There is a homeless guy who sometimes sleeps in the park near my flat. I’ve spoken to him a few times as my garden looks out onto where he tries to sleep. The first time I met him, he asked me not to turn the garden hose on him. He just wanted to rest. That was hard to hear. What is most shocking, though, is the extent to which the inequality is so obvious. Different people, with different futures and opportunities right next to each other. Almost on top of each other. Spend 20 minutes on the DLR and you’ll see so much of it.
What inspired you to write Rhubarb Ghetto specifically?
I moved to London in the late 1990s. I’ve lived in Streatham, Crystal Palace, Bermondsey, and now Wapping. The inspiration has come from all those places, and what has happened to them over the time I’ve been here. But the major inspiration is the London Marathon.
By my flat, there is an underpass on The Highway. It links the cobbled streets of Wapping to the high-rise blocks on the fringes of Shadwell. On one side, riverfront pubs. On the other, the Cable Street Mural. When the marathon heads over Tower Bridge, it turns east along The Highway. It heads along that stretch until Narrow Street and then onto Canary Wharf and then back along Commercial Road and onto The Highway.
That stretch is one of the few places where the runners see those ahead of them coming back the other way. People on both sides of the road staring at each other as the masses flood past. It’s the one day of the year where you can’t hear the traffic. There used to be a piece of graffiti in the park which laments what has happened to this part of London. It has long since been painted over. I wanted to write something that explored where the East End has gone.
Why did you want to premiere it at VAULT Festival?
I wrote the play for the two actors. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with Damian Lynch a few times, but never Izabella Urbanowicz. We met a few years ago and I later saw her in a VAULT Festival production. The second I entered the venue, saw the brickwork, heard the rumble of trains and sirens – I knew this is where Rhubarb Ghetto would have its first home. I wrote it for the actors, for the festival, and the venue. The VAULT Festival is London. It is our biggest arts festival, and I knew this story would have a home here. I am so pleased they said yes!
What do you think walking through Leake Street underpass?
The underpass at Leake Street is incredible. One of my favourite places in London. Leake Street Arches were so kind to let us shoot part of our promo trailer in the tunnel, and I think it looks terrific.
But in a way, it is exactly the point this play is trying to make. To some, graffiti is a scourge; to others, it is art. It doesn’t matter which side of the underpass you live on – there is no right or wrong. As the character of Scarlet says: “I don’t need much of a life, but it has to be my own.”
Anything else you’d like to add?
While inequality and opportunity are key to this play, we are taking global, socially-relevant themes and communicating them through the medium of Billy and Scarlet. Two characters existing in an underpass over a single evening. They’ve both made mistakes; they both have regrets and uncertain futures. I guess that’s the point. Don’t we all?
As part of this year’s VAULT Festival, Rhubarb Ghetto runs at Pit – The Vaults, Leake Street, London SE1 7NN from 12 to 16 February 2020, with evening performances (60 minutes) at 9pm and Saturday matinee at 4.30pm. Tickets from £6.50. CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!