Theatre Critic and Journalist

Talking About My Generation: Ella Hickson

Talking About My Generation: Ella Hickson

Published in The Stage, 10.05.2012

This is not how interviews with the 27-year-old playwright are supposed to begin. Past form demands that one should immediately declare her the voice of a lost generation, before seeking her analysis and counsel on the view from the milk round. She is spectacularly good on this topic: “Our working lives will be longer than our parents. Our pensions will be smaller. We will never afford the houses we grew up in. We’ve lived the best years of our lives.” And so on into existentialism and exasperation.

This reputation was born out of her second play, Precious Little Talent, which premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2009 before a new West End production last year. In its central character Joey, a law graduate on a gap year she never really wanted, the play suggests wave upon wave of students reaching the ‘real world’ to find the door has slammed shut. The lack of opportunity runs counter to everything they’ve been told – that with good A levels and a decent 2:1 the world owes them a living.

Hickson’s follow-up, Hot Mess, pinpointed the same generation’s split personality – half cynicism, half romanticism. “If there’s ever a Plays One,” she jokes, “it will be Plays One: Stop Being a Child. Go Out and Get a Proper Job.”

The next of her plays to be produced is a snug fit. Boys, which is currently running at the HighTide Festival before runs at the Nuffield and Soho theatres, is set in a student flat just before graduation. “It’s about that horrible day you realise you don’t get two months’ holiday. Ever again.” Hickson is already braced against a backlash: “A lot of the press is going to be: ‘When will she stop writing these plays about uni?’ Well, I did. About 18 months ago. I wrote all those plays within two years and during that time I was coming to terms with growing up and leaving university.”

Hickson’s work has moved on, but she seems driven by the very same anxieties that underpin these early plays. By Christmas, she hopes to have finished her tenth play. Four years ago, she was about to start writing her first.

“Yesterday, I did 12 hours with an hour’s break,” she says, in between spoonfuls of energy-boosting muesli. “People say, “Do you ever have breakfast and feel so full of passion for it that you write until midnight?” No! You have to drag yourself to a chair and you have to force yourself to do it.” Her alarm goes off at 6.30am and she’s at her laptop half an hour later, before a full day in the library. This Protestant work ethic is the family inheritance. Her father is a self-employed businessman, her mother’s a teacher and her brother, a doctor. The notion of a four-hour working day with extra thinking space built in just doesn’t compute. “I oscillate between productivity and guilt,” she concedes.

Beneath her intellectual confidence – she’s speaks not only eloquently and passionately, but at a dizzying pace – there’s an underlying insecurity that cracks the whip and spurs her on and Hickson clearly feels a huge pressure to succeed. “I consistently find myself compromising, because I’ve taken on too much. I’m really bad at saying no to things.”

Hickson wrote her debut, Eight, as something to fill the dead time after finishing finals at the University of Edinburgh in 2008. It was the first time she’d tried writing for theatre and, after a string of fringe awards, her work was playing in the West End and New York within six months. “Most people, by the time they’ve had their first production, have a few plays tucked in a drawer somewhere on the sly. I hadn’t, so I had to learn very quickly. I wrote a lot because I needed to find out how the hell to do this.”

The failure to replicate the critical acclaim of Eight with her next two plays “broke my little heart. It was all I wanted. I’d built my whole value system on that – completely misguidedly, I now realise – but the harder I worked the fewer accolades I got.”

Even if she’s not seeking the trappings of success so directly these days, there remains something contradictory about her motivation. One minute she’s talking about the desire to make a difference and bemoaning consistently white middle-class audiences – “It feels a bit like spitting in a goldfish bowl”. The next, she’s talking about her ultimate ambition to buy a house and write a novel.

“I feel pressure to build up a portfolio. People always scowl when writers say this. They say you’re going about it the wrong way. But the only way you can earn money and have any job security is if you’ve got enough of a portfolio. You’d be an idiot to write a play every three years and hope to feed yourself.”

It would be easy to cry hypocrisy, but to do so would be to ignore the fact that Boys is more than a year old. She’s sticking by it, but says it’s of its moment. “It’s not the best I can do right now, but it was the best that I could do then. That’s got a complete validity of it’s own. I wouldn’t go back to my 13-year-old self and go: ‘Urgh, you’re such an idiot. You’re really backing those fluorescent leggings’. You have to honour where you were at the time.”

Her head is now firmly in the real world. Since Boys, she’s written short contributions to political play-cycles Coalition and Decade, a history of oil for Headlong and a feminist Peter Pan for the RSC. Next up, she’s planning a memory play and an exploration of British identity. Not a mortar board in sight.

“Those early plays are all very much from the soul. They are about the things I felt at the time. But there are only so many things you can feel. I had to use my brain for a bit, because my heart was a little tired.”

Photograph: High Tide Festival

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