Phoebe Eclair-Powell writes plays fuelled by her outrage at shocking stories she spots in newspapers. She has now won Europe’s biggest playwriting prize – and says she has learned a lot by writing for Hollyoaks and from her mum Jenny Eclair.
Eclair-Powell’s first play Wink, in 2015, was sparked by seeing a story about a teenage boy who had killed himself after being the victim of revenge porn. “I just thought, oh wow, that’s crazy, this boy has lost his life because of the internet. So I wrote a play about the internet and about male psychology.”
Next came Fury, a reworking of Medea inspired by news stories about changes to child tax credits, and how some women who had become pregnant as a result of rape may have to “prove” it in order to receive the benefit.
“Again, it was like, oh my God, that’s madness. How can I approach this?” Eclair-Powell says. Fury (which The Times described as “Medea in chavland”) had its run extended at the Soho Theatre, the venue that helped launch the career of another double-barrelled Phoebe, Fleabag’s Waller-Bridge.
Eclair-Powell continues: “I do always keep an eye on, what are those real life stories that maybe go a bit unnoticed, but are just really shocking actually when you look into them?”
Now comes Shed: Exploded View, following three couples over 30 years, which has domestic violence as its “spine”. The writer was again incensed by a story in the media, this time about rising domestic violence rates.
“I can only write about what makes me angry and I couldn’t understand why, yet again, they released those figures of how many women are killed a week by their partner, and it had gone up. I think I was so flabbergasted that something could be getting worse and not better.”
While researching the subject on charity websites, she read about a woman who had been stabbed in the face with a fork by her partner.
The story “haunted” the dramatist and became part of Shed: Exploded View, which won the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting at Manchester’s Royal Exchange theatre on Monday.
The script is “astonishingly emotional” and a “punch to the guts”, according to the venue’s new joint artistic director Bryony Shanahan, who was among the judges.
“She deals with themes of female trauma with dignity, offering hope to her characters and the audience along the way.”
Eclair-Powell’s play was chosen from more than 2,500 other entries and won £16,000 as well as development at the Royal Exchange. The biennial Bruntwood Prize is for unperformed plays and is judged blind – so the judges don’t learn the identities of the writers until afterwards.
The winning play was also inspired by artist Cornelia Parker’s Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View, which captures a domestic garden shed moments after being blown up.
‘A terrifying time’
Eclair-Powell describes the 1991 artwork as an “explosion in action”. She remembers buying a postcard after seeing it in the Tate Modern gallery in her youth. When she was struggling to craft a play about domestic violence, she looked at it for inspiration. “I whipped it out and saw it again and thought, this is what I’m trying to describe.”
According to the Bruntwood Prize’s official description, the play is “about ripping the fabric of time to start again – it’s about burning this world to the ground so we can build a better future for generations of women to come”.
Snippets of all the shortlisted plays were performed at the Royal Exchange on Monday. Eclair-Powell says: “A lot of the plays we just saw extracts of, people talked about violence a lot, and I think at the moment we’re living in a really terrifying, very aggressive time, and I think violence is so part of our backdrop.”
As well as writing for the stage, Eclair-Powell, 30, from south London, has written four episodes of Channel 4’s Hollyoaks – which brings issues like domestic violence to TV screens every day.
“I grew up watching Hollyoaks. I really like melodrama, and I like young people’s stories,” Eclair-Powell says. While writing for a tea-time soap is different from writing for the stage (“You’re not allowed to swear for one, and my writing is incredibly sweary”), the impact can be bigger.
“I really don’t like the snobbery around continuing drama – soap operas – because storylines in soap operas have changed laws. When Hollyoaks had its first male rape storyline, that actually changed a law. They’ve broken so many boundaries.”
She adds: “Hollyoaks has probably helped me see that there’s nothing wrong in entertaining the audience. Entertainment may be the wrong word with this play… but really communicating your message. Making people laugh and making people cry.”
Eclair-Powell is also working on several other TV shows, including an adaptation of Joe Sugg’s graphic novel Username: Evie and a show for Sid Gentle Productions, the makers of Killing Eve.
The writer’s mum, the comedian and author Jenny Eclair, has been a familiar face on British screens since the 1990s. “I’ve tried my best to be different from my mum, but we look exactly the same,” Eclair-Powell says.
“We’re really similar. She makes me laugh more than anyone else and I’ve been very lucky to grow up with her sense of humour and to realise that a sense of humour is one of the best ways to get a message across, and that making someone laugh is akin to making them cry. I have a lot to thank her for because she’s supported me the whole way through.”
At first, Eclair Sr wasn’t a big fan of the non-linear structure and overlapping stories in Shed: Exploded View, however. “She thinks it’s pretentious. But she’s also held my hand through it and been a shoulder to cry on when no-one wanted to put it on.”
Now it’s won the award, Jenny is a very proud mum, and her daughter no longer has to worry about who will put it on.