“The question I always get asked is why I write about women so much … Thank God nobody asked that today!” quoth the great Willy Russell towards the end of a most delightful (and packed) Masterclass at Theatre Royal Haymarket yesterday. Chaired by Mark Shenton, the event took the form of an onstage interview followed by an audience Q&A. Russell began by noting that he’d originally imagined that 2010 would be a quiet year for him, but that it had ended up being extremely busy, with successful new productions of Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine transferring from the Menier Chocolate Factory to the Trafalgar Studios in London's West End and his musical adaptation of his play Our Day Out enjoying a sell-out run at Liverpool’s Royal Court. Russell gave some illuminating insights into his career and his creative process throughout the afternoon: it was particularly fascinating to hear about the genesis of Blood Brothers (which has been in the West End for over twenty years now) and about how he started out as a writer - of songs, initially, with The Beatles and Dylan as his main inspirations. (I heartily recommend his brilliant album from 2003, Hoovering the Moon.) “At first authors seemed like aliens to me,” Russell recalled. “I thought writing was only for people in tweeds who went to Oxbridge.” Russell also talked about the “sustaining arts community” of his native Liverpool, about theatre as a space for play and imagination, about the glory days of writers being allowed to write across media, and about the importance of accurately rendering “voice” in dramatic writing, quoting Isaac Bashevis Singer’s dictum that “if you write about a specific place well, then you write about everywhere.” A hilarious reading from his epistolary novel The Wrong Boy (2000) was another highlight of the afternoon.
What emerged most strongly, though, was Russell’s commitment to creating work which connects with people at a fundamental, human level ("Plays are about people, not 'Great Issues'"), and his belief in one of the basic principals of story-telling: that the author's obligation is to make audiences want to know, quite simply, “what happens next.” The overall impression was of a writer every bit as witty, astute, compassionate and unpretentious as the excellent work he’s produced over the last forty years.