Ade Solanke’s Voyage of Discovery for her new Play, East End Boys, West End Girls

east_end_boys_west_end_girls_arcolaWhen last we spoke to British playwright Ade Solanke [Read here], her play Pandora’s Box was about to return to London on the home leg of the 2014 national tour. It was a huge success and an excellent piece of theatre [Read Review]. She also confided that she kinda liked us here at TBB, which she proved when she agreed to speak to us again about her newest play ‘East End Boys, West End Girls’, about to debut in East London…

Your new project East End Boys, West End Girls – you actually did a read-through of this at Rich Mix a couple of years ago?

Yes, we did – in 2013. It was part of their Stories of London… this was my second play. That was the first outing of the project – I actually developed this when I was at the Royal Court on one of the writer’s courses when I first started out in playwrighting about 5 years ago. It’s one of those that you leave for a year, come back to, and then in 2013, after we’d done the first Pandora’s Box, I thought, “let’s go back to this other project.” The reading was really successful – we had a packed audience – a very responsive post-show discussion, chaired by Matthew Xia (Associate Artistic Director at the Manchester Royal Exchange). The way the feedback made me feel…You get a lot from audiences, and it made me aware how live the topic of the play was for audiences. It was a great mix of young people and older people and during the discussion, what surprised me most was I burst into tears at one point… One part of the play is to do with how young people mourn when one of their friends dies young – whether it’s through illness or something unfortunate like street crime. We were talking about that and I was really upset. I realised it was a lot to do with how I’d seen the young people mourn a young Turkish boy who died in our area.

I noticed the current press release says, ‘across the divides of London’, whilst the original Rich Mix press release, read, ‘from the King’s Road to Kingsland Road.’ Are those the places that your characters hail from?

Originally, and partly because I was writing it whilst at the Royal Court, I was looking around me – the King’s Road… We lived in East London, so, I was thinking about Kingsland High Road… and those differences seemed to sum up the differences between East London and West London. However, five years on, Kingsland Road has transformed.

Yes, it’s still not Sloane Square, but those stark differences aren’t quite so stark as they were and this is how London is changing – so quickly and so radically… I was thinking that obviously, you are a British-African playwright, you’ve had Pandora’s Box produced and toured, you’ve been associated with Talawa Theatre and Tiata Fahodzi. But, in terms of this play, it’s very much more about Londoners, and not so much a cultural work. The title immediately calls to mind the Pet Shop Boys’ monster ’80s hit of the same name… Were you thinking of that song?

Oh, you’ve hit the nail on the head. Pandora’s Box was set in Lagos and is very much the British-African migration and inter-generational story. This one is about teenagers who live in different parts of London. Three of the characters are British-African, but wearing their Londoner hat more in this story. I wanted to look at how young people in London are interacting and inter-relating. It’s more about, class differences and economic differences… in different parts of London. The song is just part of your DNA, isn’t it, if you’re a certain age and a Londoner…?

I had a look over the lyrics and thought they are a little dark and hopeless, but the song itself and the melody is so uplifting. The lyrics almost wash over you except for that chorus…

Another song in my head was Uptown, upbeat woman, downtown downbeat guy (Randy Edelman, 1976). I was thinking about relationships between people from different parts of the socio-economic spectrum and how those things connect. In this play, one of the girls is a very wealthy West End girl and she meets one of the East End boys whose come to her school to take an exam – In the play, it’s the fathers who really insist that the boys go and take the exam. They say, “We’ll discuss what happens next afterwards,” but the boys are not going to take themselves all the way to an entrance exam. That has to come from the parents. They click, and there’s all these aspects of their lives which are so different, and how they communicate across those differences is part of the issue. One of the boys is feeling very uncomfortable about being outside of his comfort zone, out of his area. So, it’s some of the dynamics and conflicts in that kind of set up. That’s what intrigued me.

This could almost be my story at that age, so I can see a lot of people relating to it on that level…

… I’ve a feeling there may be lots of people who may not have gone to a school outside of their area, but just going into the unknown; having to find your way through the unknown. At some point, everyone’s had to make that kind of leap and either go for it or retreat. One of the themes is the girls talking about skiing, going to Verbier and places like that, and the boys have hardly been out of their area. One of the boys has been skiing with the school. But the other is looking at these girls, thinking they’re from another planet. He’s never encountered people like this. Now, for me, I thought I was over-dramatising it. But, it was quite striking when we began discussing it, the actual actors were saying, “Actually, we’ve never really been into the West End,” and, “We’ve been on the odd school trip, but we’ve never really been out of our area!”

Playwright, Ade Solanke

Playwright, Ade Solanke

Absolutely, Oxford Street is not the West End. It’s not where the posh people go…

No, not at all and it’s that culture shock that I’m exploring in the play. One of the boys is tempted to try the new world – it’s glossier, it’s brighter, it’s more comfortable, it’s just more affluent. But, there’s the doubt of, “Well, how will I fit in?” There’s anxiety about, “Will they accept me? Will I belong?” Then there’s the voice of his friend saying, “They’re not like us. They don’t like us. Let’s stay where we belong, where we’re used to. Let’s stick to our comfort zone.”

Attending such debates and discussions about diversity in the Arts, of course, this is something I’m hearing more and more. As the race question is being laid open and explored, class is beginning to rear up as the new, maybe more important aspect of the underlying problem…

Oh, I think there’s obviously a need for more diversity around class as well as race. Quite rightly in the Arts, people are pointing out that working class actors have less opportunities than they would have done maybe even 20 years ago… Apart from the cost of actually getting an education in theatre, for example, there’s the culture of coming into what is still largely a middle class area. In this play, one of the girls is a British-Nigerian socialite. If you go to lots of London private day schools, you’ll find lots of characters like her, but we’ve never see her on stage before!

Absolutely, we haven’t. I find this interesting, remembering the 2012, Telegraph article [1], in which BBC controller of drama series and serials, Kate Harwood, said that there were more black faces on television at that time than when she started. Adding, that she had heard criticism that, “many of the black actors who come to auditions are “posh Africans” and not representative of all social classes.” Even though this was part of another conversation, as we quoted in our Caste As Black series [2], it is still not being reflected by the performing Arts.

Now, you have quite a special relationship with the Arcola Theatre, because Pandora’s Box debuted there – the premiere in 2012, and then the end of the 2014 tour. That was a great nod. So was it an easy decision to go back there?

Oh absolutely, I love the Arcola Theatre. I’ve lived in the East End for many years and it’s been my local theatre. They put on interesting work that I always enjoy, and I just really like the atmosphere there. They’ve got a Sustained Theatre LAB [3]- an Arts Council initiative to develop BAME artists. So, they really help with development of the work. They offer rehearsal space and development support… We’ve been happily ensconced there doing our rehearsals for the last few weeks, and it feels like a home away from home. They’re very encouraging and so supportive and Layla Nazli (executive director) has been a great source of support.

That’s fantastic, because the last Arts debate I attended hosted by The Alfred Fagon Awards [Read review], they were saying that with the impending government cuts to Arts funding , space, having been an issue anyway, is going to be at an absolute premium…

Creative space is so expensive. If you’re not lucky, as we’ve been with the Arcola hosting our rehearsals, you can find yourself in environments which just aren’t conducive to making good work. We’ve had a lovely studio space to work from. You’re also breathing in and soaking up all the energy of being in that environment too. So, that feeds into the work in all sorts of unexpected ways.

…And also, being situated in Dalston, you are kind of getting the best of both worlds now with the gentrification of a formerly rundown East End area…

Yes. We’re in the midst of an up-and-coming area. You have to pinch yourself to make sure it’s the same place.

Tell me about your directing experience with this new piece…

I’ve had a few plays produced, I’ve been around rehearsals, and I’ve been struck by the way that different directors work. So, I knew I’d have to find my own style. But, I spoke to lots of directors, read lots of books, and I just went and observed different directors at work. But what helped most of all was having the great actors that I’ve got. They’ve come in with enormous talent. They really engage with their characters and engage with the relationships between the characters. It’s a small cast and that helps because they’ve bonded really quickly. We’ve had lots of laughs and lots of discussions, as it should be. It’s been a growing experience, because they’ve contributed so much to the play with their insights as young people who have had different experiences… They’ve enriched the play…

I was very nervous about directing. I wanted to challenge myself and I also wanted to grow as a theatre maker. I’ve also learned more about playwrighting because often when you write, you’re not thinking about how it’s going to be produced per se. This different perspective… it’s enlarged my understanding… of theatre in a more complete way. Another aspect of wanting to be a director is just to have more collaboration – not to spend all of my creative life doing the writing in a solitary fashion… to work with others. I’ve been a writer for about 25 years, it’s been good to hear them take the words and do different things – unexpected things that I hadn’t thought about. In a way, what this process has opened my eyes to, is how much actors do bring when they perform a role. I’ve been aware of it. But now I’ve seen the process they go through to get to that performance and the amount of work and creativity involved – it’s fascinating…

Did it change the way you saw your own words?

When an actor takes charge of a role, they are going to interpret that role. In this case, there has been some symmetry between the characters and the actors playing them. So, they actually begin to inhabit the roles in a really interesting way. But, yes, it’s made me see the words anew, which is really what you want actors to do – take the words and embody them and make them flesh, which is what they’ve done.

Well, forget the journey that the kids go on, it sounds like you’ve been on a bit of a journey yourself!

I have! This is what I felt – I needed to try something different. I’ve been struck by how other directors have done the work, and it’s given me a lot to think about, and ideas that I wanted to test out… I will continue writing, but I want to continue exploring directing too.

East End Boys, West End Girls runs at The Arcola Theatre from Tuesday 28th July 2015 – Saturday 1st August 2015, so there’s no time to waste. I’ve got my place booked!

Book tickets:
Twitter: @sporastories / @arcolatheatre

East End Boys, West End Girls will also be going on tour more details below:

  • Arcola Theatre, Dalston 28th July – 1st Aug
  • CLF Arts Cafe, Peckham 4th – 7th August
  • Saatchi Gallery, Chelsea 10th – 12th August
  • Bernie Grant Arts Centre, Tottenham 14th -15th August

Plus Spora Stories will be holding exciting, FREE and inclusive workshops for 8-16 year olds. You’ll create your own work and learn new games and techniques, exploring the themes of the play using drama, writing, music and movement. Along with looking at topics such as:

  • Friendship/Loneliness when at school
  • Societal pressures / personal ambitions
  • Similarities / differences within class, race, postcodes.

Short performances will be devised to be shared with an audience of family and friends in the theatre space on the last day.

Facilitator: Maa Yarkor-Dates & Times:Addo

  • Dates & Times:
    3-7pm, 29-31 July Arcola Theatre, Dalston
  • 3-7pm, 5-7 Aug at CLF Arts Cafe, Peckham
  • 2-4pm, 10-12 Aug at Saatchi Gallery, Chelsea

To book a place, please email:

Go to the website:

interview for the british blacklist by  @DescantDeb

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