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Joseph Charlton: "I still feel that it’s so hard to break into theatre"

Joseph Charlton: "I still feel that it’s so hard to break into theatre"

Joseph Charlton: "I still feel that it’s so hard to break into theatre" cover photo on Stagedoor
Lyn Gardner talks with the writer about the revival of Brilliant Jerks and presenting technology on stage.

Joseph Charlton says that nothing compares to the buzz and the fear that happens when you see a play you have written staged for the very first time. Getting to that point is a struggle for most playwrights, but Charlton is in the enviable position of having written two plays—Anna X and Brilliant Jerks—and seen both get revivals. What is he learning from that?

"What really works and what doesn’t," says Charlton. "I think you start to understand the limitations and the merits of the work more. The test is to lean into what’s already there and good without over-exaggerating it."

Inspired by the fake heiress Anna Delvey, Anna X was first seen at the VAULT Festival in 2019 and was subsequently picked up by Sonia Friedman, opening in 2021 at the Harold Pinter with Emma Corrin and Nabhaan Rizwan. It won a slew of five-star reviews and, post-lockdown, attracted a new demographic into the West End.

You might think that the commercial and subsidised theatre sectors would be queuing up to commission Charlton, but it is TV and film reaping the benefit. He is a writer and consulting producer on the third series of the BBC show, Industry, is developing several TV series, and has co-written the Paul Mescal attached movie screenplay, A Spy by Nature.

The cast and crew of Brilliant Jerks in rehearsals. Photo by Nick Rutter.

Brilliant Jerks, his first play about a ride-hailing technology company that may or may not be Uber, gets a new production at Southwark Playhouse this week. That’s a rarity for all but the most established playwrights. But maybe it’s because Charlton—a former teacher and journalist turned playwright—has his finger on the pulse of current concerns and writes work with wide appeal and the potential to draw in new and younger audiences.

British theatre has a long tradition of plays that explore the state of the nation by interrogating the public sector and national institutions. But 33-year-old Charlton’s concern is about private sector issues, technology, and the world of work and how those impact people’s personal lives.

"I’m a millennial, not quite a digital native,” says Charlton. “So, I have grown up as part of a generation where technology has really impacted our lives. What else might we write about? It is the overwhelming topic of our times. In some ways, it feels quite annoying. The interesting challenge is in form and how you represent the internet on stage, and how you draw out character so it’s interesting to watch. The question must always be: will anyone want to spend 90 minutes with this character?"

He's certainly managed that with Brilliant Jerks, a pacy drama that moves effortlessly between a female Manchester driver, the company’s Silicon Valley-based CEO and a London coder and, in the process, explores the end of the tech boom era.

"I think there is much more scepticism about tech companies than there was even in 2018, when I wrote Brilliant Jerks, in the same way there is around cryptocurrencies. So, in many ways, it is a history play, although a very recent history play. These companies remain hugely powerful forces on the planet, but there is no longer all the free money and investment bubbles that are swirling around, and the market has corrected about whether tech companies really are a good long-term investment. But most of all, I think we have all become more aware that we give up a lot—whether in terms of data or tax revenues—when we use them."

The cast of Brilliant Jerks in rehearsals. Photo by Nick Rutter.

Charlton first touched on the tech boom while writing an article about a taxi-hailing app for The Independent, and interviewed many whose lives and livelihoods were changed by their arrival and bound up in their success or failure. So why not take the verbatim theatre route?

"I’ve got a real respect for verbatim theatre," says Charlton, "but I think fiction can help us understand people better, people who might be seen as a bit two-dimensional from the headlines or Twitter. There is a complexity that fiction can bring. My favourite bit is doing all the interviews and research before I start writing, so you get the idiom and the cadence of the characters right, but what I really enjoy is writing the bits I invent but which sound real." Or sometimes even realer.

In a short space of time, Charlton has come a long way and is now a full-time writer. He is a brilliant example of why the VAULT Festival—which has been given notice to quit the Waterloo space where the annual festival takes place—is such an essential part of the new writing ecology. He’s also a prime example of the value of self-generating work. Charlton had sent scripts off to theatres but got no encouragement when he decided to self-produce Brilliant Jerks at VAULT in 2018. He got signed up by his agent after the first performance and had TV interest and meetings within weeks.

"I’d really like to work more in theatre," says Charlton a little wistfully, "I really want to write plays that sell lots of tickets, give actors work and draw audiences in. I write stuff that entertains and is commercial, so it can feel a little disappointing that my TV and film career has gone from strength to strength, but I still feel that it’s so hard to break into theatre." He appreciates that he’s been lucky, and he is not complaining about where his talent is taking him. After all, film and TV pay much better than theatre, but he is clearly a theatre creature. Perhaps this revival of Brilliant Jerks will concentrate the attention and make theatre more acutely aware of what it may lose.

Cover image of Joseph Charlton in rehearsals for Brilliant Jerks at Southwark Playhouse this March. Photo by Nick Rutter.

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Lyn Gardner

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