Play for performance: Whatever Happened to the Jaggy Nettles?
Sunday, March 1, 2020
Each issue of D&T we bring you a page-to-stage focus on a play for performance with your students. This issue, playwright Martin Travers introduces his sharp socio-political comedy, Whatever Happened to the Jaggy Nettles?
I didn't direct Whatever Happened to the Jaggy Nettles? I couldn't direct an old lady to a scone shop far less direct a play, but I did write it and have insights I can share with you regarding Guy Hollands’ original production of the play.
I was really privileged to be able to write the play knowing that it would be the first production for Scotland's first Care Experienced Theatre Ensemble based at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow.
After meeting with the actors and getting to know them I knew I wanted to write them a coming of age story. That summer, week, or day in time when everything changes for all the characters. The strength to this sort of story is that it is a character-driven ensemble play and each character has a rock-solid path in front of them with clear motivations and desires that push the story forward.
And I also knew I wanted to create a world where costume is important – where the clothes they wear are a bold and clear statement of who these characters are and what they believe in. It felt right to write a punk play.
A politically charged narrative
Whatever Happened to the Jaggy Nettles? is a fast-paced and at times dark comedy about a punk band that really could have made it, but instead they implode, leaving nothing but their legend behind. P.K. Kelly is the singer in the band but has her own plan. She's going to be famous and doesn't mind who or what she tramples on to get there. I suppose metaphorically she represents the greed and selfishness that drove the 1980s. Lori Logan is the band manager and she's a romantic at heart. An all for one and one for all believer – but like all romantic hearts in drama she's going to get badly bruised when the other characters’ conflicting agendas come to the surface. When Jonny Silver, from London-based Cherryade Records, visits Scotland to sign the band after hearing them on the John Peel Show on BBC Radio One, the wheels are set in motion for punk rock treachery of the highest order.
I spent a long time researching the play to get the references and attitudes right. It's a world that would also work well in conjunction with other subjects including recent history and music. I saw a lot of similarities between the late 1970s and now – the rise of the right, labelling people ‘us and them’, social unrest, businesses closing and an uncertain future for young people. So, it's a raucous comedy on the surface but with lots of meaningful discussion points that can come from the text.
Casting and rehearsals
The play can be performed by an ensemble of seven young actors, or a cast of ten (including two older actors if that is an option). Ideally you need an actor who can play guitar, an actor who can play the bass and an actor who is willing to play the drums, and three of the cast need to be willing to belt out some raw punk vocals. The good news is that as this is a punk play, commitment is more important than musical proficiency or acting prowess.
When putting on this play you should look at it as two separate gigs. Band practice and acting rehearsals. These should be separate entities until you are nearing your tech. When both elements are brought together it will give your final rehearsals a real energy boost. The play could be a great way to work closely with your school's music department and/or an existing guitar band in the school too. Feel free to take out or tone down the swearing if that's appropriate.
Although the original production had a professional set, costume and lighting design; the play has been written to be just as effective in quite lo-fi productions. All you need is a drum kit, amps, mics and guitars, some chairs and a table. Costume can be skinny jeans, ripped t-shirts and baseball boots, and a lot of the props can be mimed. The play would benefit from maybe four main lighting states: band practice, other scenes, the gig and a blackout. In a way, though, the essence of the play is just to get up and do it. Get it on the stage, however you can.
‘I saw a lot of similarities between the late 1970s and now – the rise of the right, social unrest…’
Whatever Happened to the Jaggy Nettles? is available courtesy of Bloomsbury: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/
The music is owned by composer Michael John McCarthy. If you wish to use the original music, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org