New Tricks: Getting chippy… 19/11/2014

As the year draws to a close, we hear from playwright Becky Prestwich about her experiences developing her play CHIP SHOP CHIPS through our New Tricks initiative…

This year, New Tricks has developed three new plays from North West playwrights with support from leading local theatres. CHIP SHOP CHIPS was developed at the Octagon Theatre, Bolton.


Image from Becky Prestwich’s Chopping Onions (from Word:Play 2)

New Tricks: Developing CHIP SHOP CHIPS by Becky Prestwich

I have been lucky enough to collaborate with Box of Tricks on several projects before this one. On one occasion I remember Adam turning to me and saying, somewhat despairingly, “there’s a lot of food on stage in your plays, Becky”. And he’s right, there is. A mother and daughter arguing over how to cook chicken soup.  Cheese and pickle sandwiches for a funeral party. A boy and a girl sharing a bag of chips and almost kissing. Food is important. We use food to comfort ourselves, to punish ourselves, to express our love. What we eat says something about who we are. So, that’s why I wanted to write a play about chips (that and the fact that I was pregnant and craving nothing else at the time).

More than 250 million portions of fish and chips are sold in the UK every year and I wanted to write a play exploring why. Is it about nostalgia? tradition? comfort? Or just value for money? The inspiration for the play came at the Olympus Fish and Chip Shop opposite Bolton Octagon theatre – a massive Art Deco chip shop, with a grand piano in the corner. It’s a brilliant place for mushy peas – and for people watching. It struck me that this could be a great space for a site specific performance, with the audience eating a chippy tea as they watched.

I approached Box of Tricks and they were interested in the project and excited by the idea of engaging with community groups to collect their own chip shop love stories. We met with the Octagon’s Art Beat group (a theatre group for over 50s), a woman only community group based in Bolton and the Young Company from the Royal Exchange Theatre. Everyone we met had a story about fish and chips – they were surprising, touching, funny. Themes of romance and family came up again and again. We heard about the childhood excitement of being allowed chips in front of the tele and the unexpected romance of eating a fish supper on a bench instead of going to a fancy restaurant. People shared their rituals – fish on a Friday, scraps on the way home from swimming lessons. We talked a lot about community too – many of the older people we spoke to remembered the name of the local chip shop owner – from the glorious Lily Ricketts to the dubious Greasy Doreen. We talked about how what we ate had changed – how no one has a deep fat fryer at home any more and how expectations of dining out had become an every day occurrence.

The more we talked, the clearer it became that this should be an intergenerational story – exploring how the world has changed (and how it’s stayed the same). We developed ideas for two interwoven love stories – one about a couple on the brink of adulthood, who may or may not kiss for the first time and another about an older couple seeing each other again for the first time after many years apart. Once the first draft was written, Adam and I spent a week workshopping the play with actors. The actors shared their own chip shop stories too (one of which involved a knife chase, but then that’s actors for you…) Alongside doing dramaturgical work on the characters and structure, we explored how the setting might serve the story – we wanted to play with with how heightened we could be within such a real space. It was fantastic to see the characters brought so skilfully to life and to start to see the possibilities – and the obstacles – of setting the play in actual chip shops.

The main challenge for the next draft is to capture something magical and theatrical, so that the audience feel as though they have stumbled upon a love story which is both everyday and extraordinary. We also to want find space for the audience to relive their own memories of fish and chips. While I write the next draft, Box of Tricks will be exploring possibilities for a tour. I’m excited about the next stage of the adventure for Chip Shop Chips – after all 250 million people can’t be wrong about the simple joy of a chippy tea!

– Becky Prestwich