All Roads, a new play by Roy Williams has its world premiere on Thursday at the Tramshed in Woolwich. NIKKI SPENCER spoke to the award-winning Greenwich-based playwright.
“It’s astonishing!” Roy Williams laughs as he reflects on his prolific career in theatre and TV. Nearly 27 years after his first play, The ‘No Boys’ Cricket Club, was staged at Theatre Royal Stratford East, he is still very much in demand.
As well as the Tramshed premiere of All Roads, which will tour four London theatres this month, he has recently adapted Unexpected Twist, Michael Rosen’s retelling of Oliver Twist, for the Royal & Derngate in Northampton. The boxing-club drama Sucker Punch, which was first staged at the Royal Court in 2010 and made a star of the young Daniel Kaluuya, is being revived at the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch and will then tour the UK.
Roy is also currently working on a Film4 drama which will tell the true story of the Black footballers Laurie Cunningham, Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson, known at The Three Degrees, who transformed the fortunes of West Bromwich Albion in the late Seventies.
We meet to chat in the café at Woolwich Works, just before Roy is due to be interviewed as part of its Creative Futures collaboration with the University of Greenwich, a weekly programme open to all where industry professionals share their stories. Roy is now a visiting professor at the university, which is “a stone’s throw” from the home he shares with his partner, the arts journalist Fiona Hughes.
The youngest of four siblings, Roy was brought up in Notting Hill by his mother, who was a nurse. After struggling at school he was taken under the wing of the playwright and director Don Kinch – father of the jazz saxophonist Soweto Kinch – who introduced him to fringe theatre. Roy gravitated towards acting, but soon realised “it was just not me”.
“I didn’t like being on stage. I couldn’t sing or dance and they kept on asking me to audition for Five Guys Named Moe,” he says. “I wanted to be on the other side of the table. I wanted to be a playwright.”
In 1992 he enrolled on a three-year play writing course at Rose Bruford College. “Back then Rose Bruford had two sites – one in Deptford and one in Sidcup so we’d often go to Greenwich to have a drink,” he recalls.
In his final year Roy wrote The ‘No Boys’ Cricket Club, which explores the dashed hopes of first-generation Jamaican immigrants in Britain. Decades later, All Roads looks at “what it means to love, grieve and build your own future, being young and Black British today”.
“I’ve got nephews and nieces, and this is about how they see themselves,” Roy explains. “There’s been a lot written about the Windrush generation and my generation, but these characters are the third generation.”
All Roads was prompted by the death of his mother. “It made me realise we are the old farts now!” he says. “The third generation look at us in the same way as we look at our parents.”
The two-hander features Kudzai Mangcombe as Chantel and Tristan Waterson as Matthew.
“I don’t want to give too much away but there’s a death in the family and it brings the two characters closer together. They have a relationship and it is under threat,” says Roy.
“They are still coming to terms with what it is to be Black and British and what it is to be a Black male and female. It takes twists and turns and is funny when it needs to be, and more serious when it needs to be,” he adds.
Roy says that even after so many years in the industry he never gets bored with being in rehearsals for his plays.
“I live for rehearsals! It’s what keeps me going,” he says. “When you write something you are by yourself, but then actors give it life and perform it in ways you never saw in your head.”
Roy is keen for other playwrights to follow in his footsteps, although he believes it is a lot harder now than when he first entered the industry. He recently gave a talk to a writers’ group at Hampstead Theatre where he told them that they could not have picked a worse time to be playwrights .
“There are more challenges now than when I started, but my advice is don’t give up,” he says. “You are needed. Stories are needed, and the more diverse the better.”
Roy is delighted that the play is having its premiere at the newly-reopened Tramshed. “I was there a while ago to meet the Caribbean Social Forum when I was working on something for the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival and I am looking forward to the opening night,” he says.
“Greenwich is a great borough and it always surprises me.”
Although on Thursday you won’t find him sitting in the front row.
“I will be hiding away,” he says. “It’s why I like to be the playwright. I don’t like the spotlight put on me.”
All Roads has its premiere at the Tramshed in Woolwich on Thursday and runs until Sunday. There will be a post-show talk with Roy Williams on Friday. Tickets £12.50 (concs £7) from tramshed.org.
The play then runs at the New Wimbledon Theatre from March 15-18, Theatre Peckham from March 22-26 and the Bernie Grant Arts Centre in Tottenham from March 29-April 1.
NIKKI SPENCER is a freelance journalist who has also written for The Guardian, The Independent, Lewisham Ledger and Peckham Peculiar.
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