From Corrie to writing a ‘bold, big and brassy’ hit play

The trailer for A Government Inspector, coming to the York Theatre Royal

Best known as Angie Freeman in Coronation Street, Deborah McAndrew is now an acclaimed playwright. Her critically-lauded adaptation of A Government Inspector hits York next week, a comedy about small-town corruption, unscrupulous councillors, bribes and backhanders.

This is her second collaboration with Northern Broadsides, and the play is based on the classic satire by Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. We caught up with Deborah (below right) and talked about Corrie, the north and bee-keeping…

 

A play about political corruption – sounds topical!

It does seem right for the times. It’s right for any times, that’s the thing about a classic play. People always behave badly and there will always be somebody taking a bribe and passing a brown envelope. That’s just the way of the world, it is a universal thing.

I have put a lot of contemporary references in, but they’re non-specific. We’ve got pasties in there, there’s even a reference to beach volleyball at one point.

 

Does the setting make a difference – a Pennines town?

This play works particularly well set in the North because you’ve got that image of the northern politician. Going back to characters like Derek Hatton in Liverpool, there’s lots of strong images of northern local government.

It’s partly because local government is set in opposition to central government a little bit. Culturally we could be a billion miles away from London, we might as well be on the moon.

 

How do you go about adapting a Russian play?

With this play I consulted with a native speaker, a very lovely academic at Sheffield University called Marianna Ivanova who talked to me about the language of Gogol and gave me a feel for what he’s up to. You lose masses in translation. What you lose is all that nuance, all the stuff the audience take for granted, that they just know.

Sometimes I’ve riffed and gone off-piste from the text quite a lot, but actually the intention has remained Gogol’s in that way. I was really pleased that my Russian friends went, “Yep, that’s the play.”

 

Where did the musical element come in?

Part of the brief from Broadsides was to have a brass band element in the play. I was very keen that that didn’t feel like it was tagged on, that it was absolutely woven through the play. It’s absolutely central to how the play works, but it’s still doing what Gogol intended which is to represent ordinary people and some sense of shared values that have been corrupted.

Jon Trenchard as Snapper and Kraig Thornber as Sidebottom in the Northern Broadsides / Harrogate Theatre production of A Government Inspector. Photograph: Nobby Clark

How did you become a writer?

Because I didn’t go to drama school I wasn’t sure about being an actor. I ended up acting, then I didn’t really stop working, although I thought I would always write. I wrote in between acting, but to be honest I didn’t really have much time off in 11 years. Nearly 12 years ago, our daughter was born. I thought I don’t want to go on tour, I don’t want to do any of that, I’d love to keep acting but it can’t be compromising my family now. So I just literally switched and started to write.

 

Did Coronation Street influence your writing?

I think it probably did. It’s hard to know where influences come from. There’s certainly some very fine writers. When I went into Corrie in 1990 there was a young Paul Abbott writing the scripts. There were some very good writers. And it’s a northern voice and that’s my voice and that’s where I live, and that’s how it comes out. Other influences were northern writers like Alan Bennett, because he picks up the rhythms of how people talk where I live. He’s from Leeds, which is where I grew up. My family are all from Leeds, they’re all still there.

I love working on classic plays and elevating ordinary language into something quite rhythmic and poetic. The best of the Street does that – it has that elevated language.

 

Is your time on Corrie a fond memory or a millstone?

It’s just part of the landscape. It’s not a millstone, but neither is it something that I think back with any rose-coloured spectacles, like I might do on my university days. Because it was a mixture of some good stuff and some uncomfortable stuff, like being famous, which I didn’t particularly find comfortable.

I’m still in touch with one or two old friends from there as well, and people I value as part of my life. But as far as being in the Street, it was just a job I did a long time ago really, but it’s coloured my life because everybody still remembers me and says hello – and that’s all fine. My daughter, of course, doesn’t have any memory of it because it was long before she was born, but it’s just part of her life as well. We’re standing in the queue at the dentist and somebody starts to talk to me about Corrie. She takes that for granted now.

Deborah stars as Angie Freeman in an episode of Coronation Street from 1993

What are you working on now?

I’ve written a play this year for Mikron Theatre Company in Marsden. They do social history plays and they tour out of a narrow boat and play pubs. They commissioned me last year to write a play about allotments. It was on in some York allotments – a play called Losing The Plot. I’m writing a new play for them next year about bees and bee-keeping. Because of course bees are a big thing at the moment in the news and I’m a bee keeper. It’s a very passionate group of people because it’s an extremely fascinating, quite addictive sort of hobby really.

Mikron will be bringing it to York I’m sure. Losing The Plot went down very well on the allotments in York.

 

Finally, who should come to A Government Inspector?

We’ve had some wonderful reviews. One review down south said “If you’re feeling depressed get your doctor to prescribe you a ticket to this show”. Anybody who is up for a good night out, who’s open to something that’s unashamedly theatrical. It’s bold and big and brassy. Literally brassy!