• June 10, 2023

Interview: Making Friends with Strangers

Writer Nell Rayner on bringing her play Strangers to Lion and Unicorn Theatre

We came across Strangers recently as part of the Act II Festival at The Space. It was a 20-minute short that really caught out attention due to its wonderful writing that we said “takes the mundane and makes it interesting”. At the time we also suggested that the play would not feel at all out of place at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre due to its style, which we felt was reminiscent of much of the work that the Kentish Town pub theatre constantly delivers.

So you can imagine how thrilled we were to find out that is just where Strangers is heading for a week from 27 June. And it was all the reason we needed to sit down with writer Nell Rayner to find out more about the play, what it was like being part of Act II and how they have now found themselves heading to Lion and Unicorn.

Lovely to meet you Nell. As you’re well aware, we loved this play when we saw it as a 20-minute version at the recent Act II Festival. But we struggled to really describe what it is about, so how would you explain it to a complete stranger?

Lovely to meet you too. Well, I would say you got it pretty spot on in your review! The story follows four strangers as they navigate the constant motion of city life. Their lives cross paths often – through small talk in the back of a cab, over the counter at a café, and in many other ways our lives collide with strangers every single day. They are searching for meaningful connection but seem to miss the opportunity every time, until an unlikely event brings them all together. Using a mix of spoken word and dialogue to guide us through the year, the play looks at the loneliness and anonymity of living in a city, and our need to belong in the place we call home.

What was your initial inspiration then? Is this how you see London living?

Well, I come from a small rural town, and only moved to London two years ago, so when I first started here, I certainly felt a sense of hostility compared to where I grew up. It’s a busy city, and everyone is too focused on where they are going and what they are doing to ever really look up. I found the change very difficult, as the pace of life is so different. However, now I’ve settled into it, I have found other joys, and I am thankful for the opportunities, culture, and life that the city can offer.

I wrote the original draft of Strangers four years ago, before I had made the move, but I had been up to London quite a lot for theatre. My initial inspiration didn’t necessarily come from my own observations, but from a friend who told me that they found it lonely to think that London is one of the most watched cities, yet you could visit and leave again, and no one would notice that you’d ever been there at all. When I moved to London, I felt this deeply and I picked up the script again and redrafted it now with my own experiences at the heart of the characters.

And whilst it’s never directly mentioned, is it very much set in London then or do you envisage this would be universal of any big city?

Funnily enough, one of the only stage directions in the script addresses this very question. I have not set the play in London – hence why there are no direct references to locations or specific elements of London. I have left it up to the director to decide whether they want the specific city to be clear. I think it’s quite a universal feeling.

Act II Festival was a collection of 12 shorts, with a limit of 20 minutes. Was the original version of Strangers written just for the festival or did you have to edit down your play to fit?

Yes, I edited down the longer version, which was fairly simple to do considering the way it is structured. The scenes are short and can go in any order with a few tweaks, so it worked for twenty minutes. However – and I’m sure any writer would agree with me – that my version of twenty minutes isn’t actually twenty minutes (more like thirty), so we were making cuts as late as the night before!

The festival aimed to give experience for new theatre makers of what it’s like to develop and put on a play, did you pick up lots of ideas and tips for what to do next with your writing?

Yes, it is a brilliant festival, and I would urge any young writer or director to take part! We had six weeks of industry workshops, where playwrights and theatre companies advised us on rehearsal techniques, funding applications, and our next steps in the industry, and these were so valuable. The festival days too, having the process of getting your work from page to stage, you learn so much.

We mentioned in our review that the play had a real feel of the type of work we see at Lion and Unicorn regularly, and now you’re really about to put the show on at that very venue. How did that come about? 

Your review helped me a lot! I contacted the Lion and Unicorn Theatre a couple of days after the festival ended, and they programmed the show that same week. I had redrafted the full version of the play again and felt confident that it was ready. I’m learning so much from the process as it goes on, but that’s the best way to do it! You’re never going to feel completely ready, but you have just got to trust it.

Were you aware of Lion and Unicorn and the type of work they put on prior to the festival?

Yes, I’ve seen a few things there, and have thought about contacting them before but I just didn’t have the confidence. After ACT II, I knew it was the right time – I had four brilliant actors and a script I was proud of, and I think it will fit the space really well.

You’re clearly at the early stages of your writing career, but has the reaction to Strangers already given you confidence that you are on the right path?

It really has. This play has been in the works for four years and is the piece of writing I am most proud of, so the reaction to the extract really secured it for me. I am so grateful for the opportunity I had with ACT II, and with the support that the play has had from them and the audiences! I can’t wait for you to see the full thing!

And what else is planned for 2023 for you then?

Well, I’m just about to finish my Writing for Performance degree at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and then I aim to get some more writing opportunities lined up. At the moment, I’m in the middle of the run of How to Kill Foxes as the assistant director, and I’m also heading up to Edinburgh Fringe this year as a reviewer which I am very excited about. I am looking forward to seeing what the rest of this year will bring!

Thanks to Nell for chatting to us about Strangers. It plays at Lion and Unicorn Theatre from 27 June, further information and bookings can be found here.