Ade Solanke © Robert Day
Since the phenomenal success of her debut play Pandora’s Box, requests for a second play have been ringing in Ade Solanke’s ears. Three years on and British theatregoers’ wishes have been granted. Solanke’s new play East End Boys, West End Girls opened at the Arcola theatre this week amidst much anticipation. Solanke explains that the new play is about four London teenagers meeting at an entrant’s exam for a scholarship to a prestigious private school.
“It’s a coming of age play. These four young peoples’ worlds wouldn’t normally collide and with the gentrification of London there does seem to be an ever growing divide between areas. In the first version of the play, I had a cast of thousands because I wanted to represent London’s diversity. I’d put in African heritage, Caribbean, British Asian, Turkish European, everybody. But I’ve whittled it down and it’s now a cast of four. I suppose my core focus in Spora Stories (Solanke’s blog dedicated to her writing and teaching projects) is diaspora and British-African. So we have two British-Nigerian, east end boys, and two west end girls, one British-Nigerian and one white. So it’s about young people from an affluent part of London meeting young people from a poorer part.”
Solanke’s own Nigerian heritage features strongly in her work. Pandora’s Box portrayed a family reuniting in Nigeria after 40 years apart. This affecting depiction of fractured family ties and the clash of dual heritage had audiences queuing around the block. Her new play also touches upon Solanke’s own experiences, specifically of growing up in London. Being an official West End Girl from Ladbroke Grove, she describes how the London of today is so different to the city of her adolescence.
I don’t think parents feel the same ease about letting their children out and about. It means that young people often get stuck, not just geographically but in terms of outlook and aspiration. So the play is also about comfort zones
“So many people these days don’t travel around London the way we did back in the day. I won’t say when the day was! But a bus ride was 2p and we’d spend the summer just travelling up and down London. I was near Portobello, so I grew up around all the bohemian artists of the sixties/seventies. One of my earliest memories from when I was seven or eight was stumbling into a love-in with all these people lying around. (Laughs.) I took it for granted that we could just explore London. I don’t think parents feel the same ease about letting their children out and about. It means that young people often get stuck, not just geographically but in terms of outlook and aspiration. So the play is also about comfort zones.”
London transport seems to have had a profound effect upon the self-titled Grove Girl. In a process known only to the highly creative, a snippet of conversation formed part of the play’s inspiration.
“I was sitting on a bus and hearing some British-African boys saying “I wouldn’t want to go to a white school.” They meant just because they don’t want to feel different. But if they feel that, that means they wouldn’t want to be a lawyer or so on. There are certain areas of life that are still white dominated; does that mean that’s a no go area for you? Overhearing that made me think what a risky mind-set that is to have. So I wanted the play to also show a young man who had reservations, was in his comfort zone but was handling the fear of change.”
East End Boys, West End Girls by Ade Solanke © Thabo Jaiyesimi
There’s a standard joke, if you’re not a lawyer, doctor or engineer don’t bother coming back. (Laughs.) That’s the holy trinity of professions. It’s good that parents are ambitious for their children but it can be counter-productive.
Having spent over a decade lecturing in script writing at Goldsmith University, Solanke has considerable insight into the UK’s educational system. Whilst she herself always enjoyed school, Solanke believes there is more pressure on children to excel than ever before. She elaborates:
“I’m really interested in ‘exam mania’ and how that affects young people. Anorexia, self-harm, depression, competing for these scholarships and so on, there’s so much pressure. One of the characters in the play has to deal with parents spending thousands of pounds on private tuition. If you feel so obliged to deliver, what does that do to you?”
The challenges faced by young people in modern society is clearly something Solanke is very attuned to. What is particularly inspiring is the way she uses her drama as a vehicle to relate to and interact with her audience. With this is mind, she is running a series of workshops where audience members can devise their own responses to the show. These workshops will look at the topics touched upon in the play, such as societal pressures and loneliness at school.
With three of the characters in her play being British-Nigerian, I ask Solanke if she feels children from the diaspora experience more academic obligation.
“I can only talk about African heritage children, but absolutely. The parents expect you to deliver. There’s a standard joke, if you’re not a lawyer, doctor or engineer don’t bother coming back. (Laughs.) That’s the holy trinity of professions. It’s good that parents are ambitious for their children but it can be counter-productive.”
Whilst her play explores the controversial issues of class and race, Solanke reveals that her Nigerian heritage wasn’t an issue growing up. “The concept of being a minority was completely alien to me, I didn’t realise until I was at university. That part of London was so diverse that you didn’t feel like you were the only one. But speaking to friends they’ve said they had to run to school instead of walk because of all the racism. That shocked me hugely and is still a reality in some areas.”
Examining the links between colour and privilege is a bold move for any playwright. Luckily, the former story analyst for Sundance and Disney seems up to any challenge and has even taken on the weighty task of directing the play. Solanke admits that flexing her directorial muscles has proved demanding at times.
“It’s been a real journey for me. For the first week I had to think ‘Ah, I’m supposed to tell them what to do!’ (Laughs.) As a writer, you open a vein, pour it all out and its then down to the director, the cast, designers, the people who make it producible, so this is a quantum leap. I wanted to develop myself as a theatre maker and now I’ve seen the journey beyond the page and it’s helped my writing enormously. Also it’s shown me what an amazing job the creative team do and just how talented they all are. It’s been so nerve wracking, but such a joy.”
East End Boys, West End Girls by Ade Solanke © Thabo Jaiyesimi
Having already made the quantum leap into playwriting it is obvious that Solanke is on a constant quest to evolve. Having received an MFA in screenwriting from the prestigious University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, Solanke earned her stripes in Hollywood. Her work as a screenwriter also extends to the world of acclaimed Nollywood movies such as Dazzling Mirage. Whilst Solanke’s career was firmly based in screenwriting, she was always an avid attender of plays. In 2007, a show at the Almeida stirred her to turn her writing talents in a more theatrical direction.
“I’ve been watching theatre forever, but work was always screenwriting for me. But I saw Theodore Ward’s Big White Fog and as soon as I saw that, it inspired me. It was the expertise of the storytelling, I thought ‘I want to do that. I want to tell stories that fluently and vividly.’ So in a way, one play inspired all of this. I went to see it five times. (Laughs.) I joined a writing group and it just started rolling from there.”
Solanke’s world view is incredibly expansive. Throughout the interview there are frequent references to recent news reports and published statistics. From the swinging sixties to postcode violence, no stone is left unturned during our illuminating conversation. Such astute observations combined with genuine warmth make Solanke a delight to interview. With so many different aspects feeding into her work, I am curious if there is a particular theme which inspires Solanke’s writing.
“What I’m interested in is fish out of water stories. In East End Boys, you’re going to be a fish out of water if you’re of African heritage and in the English private school system. So that to me is inherently dramatic. My goal is always a good story well told and I’ve worked hard to deliver that. The cast and the production team are all excellent as well. But this play should also raise some issues and I think it’s very much a London story which London people will be able to relate to and hopefully form their own opinions upon the subjects raised.”
- The workshops being held as part of the play’s run will take place at the CLF Arts Cafe in Peckham from the 5-7th August and at the Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea from the 10-12th of August. More | To book a place, email: firstname.lastname@example.org