After the success of Fat Souls, the Warehouse secured me a writer-in-residence grant from the Arts Council. Part of this involved writing a new play. Ted Craig, the theatre’s director, asked for a contemporary story. I tried an experiment with a metatheatrical work called Cod’s Law, a kind of parody well-made play which collapses in on itself when the characters rebel against their preordained dramatic roles. I couldn't make it work. One day, wandering Croydon’s Whitgift Centre, I saw youths being run out by a security guard. I got to mulling on what it’s like being young and unwelcome. I began to conceive Adam, arrested for bricking a shop window. And someone advocating for him. Coming Up is a dramatic advocacy.
The mid-90s were a time when ideas of high and low were the thing. A lot of it was drugs. But the terminology of drugs – talking about ups and down – was figuratively intriguing. I wanted to use the theatre space in ways taught us by the medieval dramatists. The stage as a world with something heavenly up above it. I set the drama mostly in a tower block. When A scene set in an elevator is about the idea of elevation. My protagonist, Rose, is around about the middle of things – mostly the middle of an unhappy marriage. A man she meets invites her upstairs…
A lot of characters crowded my head, wanting their part in this story. A teaming council estate with numerous denizens, and interludes at school. The funding model of off-West End venues doesn’t allow casts of thousands. Doubling actors is an economic solution, but also there’s a poetry in doubling. Two characters might be seen as different sides of the same coin. Ultimately there’s a spiritual truth in this – the same actor looking out from all of those eyes.
The play continues some concerns of The World & his Wife but offers a way out, up and away. It was another verse drama. Rhythmic speech, rich imagery, poetic expression. When you’re writing about working class characters, the kinds of characters that are usually sentenced to endless rounds of EastEnders plotlines and mundane dialogues. Theatre writers can have as they speak from their souls, not from the streets.
Adam is a troubled lad, fallen into the arms of the Law. He’s committed a sin against society - a smash and grab for some trainers in a shopping mall - and is now due to be judged, maybe go down.
Rose is his school teacher. She knows Adam’s bright, so wants to speak up for him. Only one problem: the man who arrested Adam is Testy, Rose's security guard husband.
Rose encounters a neighbour who lives in a flat way above hers, a mysterious musician called Happy. This new man in Rose's life brings it back home to her: the importance of love; standing up for what and who you believe in; intimacy; putting your life on the line. But Testy is a man capable of murderous jealousy...
The tangled relationship between Rose and her two men and the plight of young Adam are enacted on council estate and school room settings writhing with vivid denizens: tragic old couple Pork and Cabbage; frigid and superstitious schoolmarm Miss Nice; predatory "friend of the family" Mr. Nonsense; drunken and terrible mother, Karli; foul-mouthed layabout, Snide. A light is shone on each of these characters, their spiritual and moral conditions.
Will Rose settle for down, with her love kept dark and secret? Or will she come up as Happy advises and learn that she can fly?
Casting requirements: 2 f, 3 m (with doubling)
Reading: (as Coming Up, or Dumbo’s Flying) Writers in the Wings at Warehouse Theatre, 20 October, 1996
Cast: Joanna Brookes (Karli/Miss Nice), Frank Ellis (Pork), Simon Fenton (Adam), Thomas Murphy [Tom Hayes] (Snide/Mr Nonsense), Natalie Ogle (Rose), Pamela Sholto (Cabbage), Simon Slater (Happy/Testy)
Directed by Ted Craig
Produced by Warehouse Theatre Company
Premier: Warehouse Theatre, Croydon, 10 October – 16 November, 1997
Cast: Joanna Brookes (Cabbage/Karli/Miss Nice), Nicola Duffett (Rose), Thomas Goodridge (Adam), Euan Macnaughton (Happy/Testy), Thomas Murphy [Tom Hayes] (Mr Nonsense/Pork/Snide)
Directed by Ted Craig; designed by Peter Lindley; lighting by Bruno Poet
Produced by Warehouse Theatre Company and Friendly Fire Productions
Semi-staged scenes (in English and Italian): Premio-Candoni-Arta Terme, Italy 11-13 September, 1998
Directed by Ted Craig
Cast: Joanna Brookes (Miss Nice/Cabbage), Marco Casazza (Zampone), James Martin Charlton (Pork), Sandra Cossata (Rosa/Professoressa Carina/Verza), Nicola Duffett (Rose), Massimo Marinoni (Happy)
Produced by Warehouse Theatre Company
"…characters in plays by James Martin Charlton are given such rich, extraordinary comments to express their feelings… a return to Fat Souls’ peculiar strengths: a passionate sympathy with the victims of abuse, and a readiness to exploit underused theatrical styles to present their story... Sometimes the characters on this London estate speak harshly, complaining, arguing, telling sexist jokes, but frequently even the nastier one shift gear into a language of a regular couplets, rhymed or half-rhymed, expressing deeper concerns and the fear and desire to give voice to them." - Jeremy Kingston, The Times
"Oscar Wilde's famous line "We are all born in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars" echoes around the concrete walkways in Coming Up, James Martin Charlton's cleverly constructed new play about low life and high hopes on a council estate. There are also shades of Steven Berkoff's East in the scabrous language spoken by his cardboard cut-out Londoners. But this award-winning dramatist, now the Warehouse Theatre's writer-in-residence, is a poet of the tower blocks, and he comes at you with a ferociously funny and totally uncynical voice which, as well as being entertaining, boldly suggests a universal and uplifting message about bridging the spiritual gaps that exist in all our lives… Admittedly, it takes a while to get used to his jagged characters' stylised speech patterns. But Ted Craig's intelligent direction roots the theatrical potential of the cartoon humour in a recognisable reality, and he keeps his talented cast on the right side of caricature within a traverse performance space bounded by two monolithic tower blocks. Before long I was sharing in the ups and downs experienced by this community, caught up in a kind of inner-city hell, but one which might well reach some sort of heaven on the top floor… Only the two central figures are given real names: Adam, an unhappy black schoolboy in deep trouble for stealing a pair of designer trainers; and Rose, his teacher, who is wilting in the summer heat in her ground floor flat and fading fast under the oppressive shadow of her brutal husband. All of the other characters, brought to life by just three quick-changing actors, are given labels. These include 'Testy' (highly appropriate for Rose's bombastic security guard hubbie); 'Snide’ (his laddish boozing pal); 'Miss Nice' (a sin-and-salvation schoolmarm); 'Karli' (Adam's white, tub-of-lard, gin-soaked mum); and 'Mr Nonsense' (her creepily pederastic friend). Adam's crime sets them all into motion, and Rose has to decide whether to help the suicidal kid by testifying on his behalf in court. Fortunately, her stagnant existence gets a physical and spiritual boost after a chance meeting with 'Happy' - a cute guy with a flat somewhere up in the clouds. But will Adam join them?... The acting is first rate. Euan Macnaughton slips between the diametrically opposed Happy and Testy with ease, while Nicola Duffett, here taking a break from her role as Debbie in Eastenders, makes Rose a completely believable moth drawn to Happy's brilliant light. As Adam, Thomas Goodridge gives a beautifully understated portrait of a young boy trapped in a downward spiral of abuse and depression… While the play is at its liveliest when depicting grimly amusing white trash, there are some riveting dramatic highlights - especially the breath-holding scene when Adam's "uncle" gets up to some of his nonsense, and the genuinely touching sequence when you suddenly discover the submerged grief of a bickering couple whose only moments of happiness come from the National Lottery. Tragic but uplifting." – Roger Foss, What’s On
"Combining poetry and burlesque with social comment and naturalism, James Martin Charlton’s East End drama is a bold theatrical gambit… Charlton is undoubtedly a lively writer and his characters, their stories and his language hail from a fiery mind." – Patrick Marmion, Time Out
"Charlton’s play impresses in how it never condemns any of its characters… Much of the language reminds you of Shakespeare’s… [Charlton] eschews realism in favour of poetry and there is a strangeness to the play… he articulates the often silent voice inside everyone who hates their situation and wants to escape.... " - The Stage
"Charlton [...] has an excellent ear for the rhythms of underclass and youth culture banter... enjoyable, larger than life... if there could exist the exemplary postmodern drama, Coming Up is it... a kaleidoscopic blend of styles, kitchen-sink drama and Berkoff; poetic allusions and philosophical ideas mixed with swearing, mumbling, violence and The Clash; frantic pace and high energy; the picking up of themes and the dropping of them without warning; zapping from one mode of expression and perspective on a subject to another without pausing for reflection. Whether these aspects are laudable or lamentable varies according to your taste. It is all daring, experimental stuff with an irrepressible spirit. A young audience will enjoy it." - Gillian Piggott, Croydon Advertiser
“Last Wednesday evening I took a group of twenty-nine teenagers from Hensham Manor School in Thornton Heath to the Warehouse Theatre in Croydon. We went to see a play called Coming Up. As an English teacher I arranged the visit because I thought it was a very well written and produced piece of work that was very relevant to the modern teenager of fifteen, and would complement their appreciation of reading, writing and communication. The play was followed-up the following Friday with a workshop offered to the pupils by Joanna Brookes, a member of the cast. What came out of both the performance and the workshop was truly remarkable. Many of the pupils felt that the play was about them and their life. What they discovered was that the theatre is for them, that it can be a place of magic. I was overwhelmed by the need of the pupils to talk about it nonstop, not only in lessons but all the way through break and lunch-time the next day. I was also delighted by the amount of detail that the pupils could recount in sequential order and the amount of analysis that they were able to carry out on the use of language made in the play. The pupils have asked if they can be taken to see this performance again, as well as the next production at the Warehouse. This is all the more remarkable given that my pupils have special educational needs, with particular difficulties in literacy, social and emotional areas.” – Head of English, Hensham Manor School