Small Fish Big Cheese

Sudha Bhuchar
Writer – Small Fish, Big Cheese

When Carl Miller from Unicorn approached me to be their Class Acts playwright for 2011, he told me that it was a commission for a world premier, bespoke for the year six class room that I would be paired with and a strict half an hour length. I was nervous that I didn’t have any idea what to write about as I was given carte blanche to write about anything, as long as I followed these rules and made sure that all thirty kids in the class could participate in an uplifting ‘rite of passage’ experience of performing the play on the main stage at the Unicorn, giving them a unique way of saying Goodbye to Primary school. So no tragedies clearly? He did warn me that it was a ‘tough ask’. I also had five plays to read from my predecessors; eminent playwrights like my mentors Lin Coghlan and Philip Osment who had risen to the challenge in previous years. Luckily I have an eleven year old son (then ten) and a fourteen year old son whose throwaway comments have often become gold dust for a magpie playwright like me. In fact in school they now have a term in English called ‘magpie..ing’ where kids are encouraged to ‘steal’ great images and phrases from books and writers they admire and ‘make them their own’ in their new works of literature.  Not that I would encourage plagiarism but as long as it’s ‘out of the mouths of your own babes’, surely that’s allowed?

One of my sons expressed a concern going round school like a Chinese whisper. ‘The world’s going to end in 2012 and I’ll have spent all my life at school’. This was the seed of my exploration about the fears and dreams of the young in an increasingly turbulent world. When I met the talented and vibrant Year six class from Shapla Primary, I wanted to offer them a piece that reflected their unique cultural context as British Bengalis. Through the wonderful facilitation by Sharon Aviva-Jones and Jenny Maddox we had a fruitful three sessions with the Shapla Year six kids, as they opened up a window into their lives and how they saw their place in the world. I was struck also by the role that religion placed in shaping their lives and providing a moral compass. For them ‘the end of the World’ is a certainty that they take for granted; the only unknown being when this might be. As one of them said (which is a line in the play) ‘it will be on a Friday, but parents never said when’. To be in a classroom where a teacher expressing a Darwinian view is in the minority, was fascinating and I wanted to give centre stage to the children’s world view where they fully expect to be held accountable for their actions in this life and as one parent expressed ‘every day do something to prepare for the hereafter’. From this emerged the characters of the Angel Assistants who are there on every one’s left and right shoulders making an account of all the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ deeds in everyone’s unique balance sheet that will decide their ultimate fate.

2011 was also the year that Bangladesh as a country turned 40 and every child in the class expressed their views of their identity and their parents’ connection to their ‘homeland’. Their fantastical imaginations helped shape for me the last scene in the play where the parents try to mark the occasion and the children take over.

So armed with this research and the daily nuggets I overheard at home ‘small fish, big cheese’ began to emerge and an unconscious spirit held my hand throughout as I wove in the various strands of over heard gold dust, breaking news about Earthquakes and the Arab Spring, theories about the end of the World, the lost and jilted generations, read Oscar Wilde and Skellig, and reluctantly prepared my younger son for his eleven plus exams. As one of the mums in the play says ‘What is a future with B’s?’ to which the daughter replies ‘everyone who gets A’s is from the same gene pool’; expressing yet another modern concern of parents and kids. This fear of the future takes different forms and hangs in the air throughout the play and is especially charged as the kids see a finite ending to their young lives and express deep and profound feelings with great wit and humour.

‘There was nothing on that Super Muslim Channel and they should know’

‘There’s gonna be a World War three alright. I’ll punch you in the face. That’s World War three’

As the children take matters into theirown hands their parents emerge as fragile and fallible reflecting the reality I was experiencing and seeing around me; adults coping with huge life changes, life threatening illness and major bereavement; the older you get the braver you have to be, yet the more you end up leaning on your children.

The World Premier of Small fish, Big Cheese was in July 2011 with the entire Year 6 class of Shapla primary taking centre stage. I am delighted that Bryan Savery and Jim Johnson from Peshkar responded so passionately to my play and am looking forward to its future journey. See Jim’s blog for his take on the project and I must say I am fascinated that for him the thing that stood out first was what he calls ‘the Big Idea’ as I always start with the ‘small story’

On the first day of rehearsals we had huge storms in London and Wimbledon, where I live, was plunged in darkness for several hours. Is it a sign or just one of those things that always happen where life imitates art and I always find that themes from plays I am writing start to seep into the ‘real’ world!

7 January, 2012

Jim Johnson
Artistic Director – Peshkar

As I write this I am preparing my final thoughts before day one of rehearsals for Sudha Bhuchar’s play ‘Small Fish Big Cheese’ which will feature actors from Tamasha’s developing artist programme and will be presented at the Unicorn Theatre for a week commencing the 10th of January.

My connection with her play came by chance following a conversation with the associate producer at Peshkar, the company of which I am artistic director and who are producing the work as part of our ongoing ‘FutureDesh’ digital arts and climate change programme.  The conversation stimulated a huge amount of enthusiasm in me, not least because it was written by a well respected artist but it was created in precisely the same way we create work at Peshkar, in terms of original user voice at the heart of the work and methodology.

FutureDesh the programme, came about as an idea about 2 and a half years ago which was concerned with the relationship young people in the UK have with the issue of global climate change and how it relates to themselves and those most fiercely exposed to the eye of the storm in Bangladesh where in some areas of the country, the land is quite literally falling into the sea.

Our interest in the big idea behind FutureDesh led us to travel to Bangladesh in early 2010 to meet young people, artists and stakeholders and to better understand the personal stories behind the issue and to communicate these in an artistic way that would have resonance and meaning for the constituency of young people that we aim to engage with our work, namely those young people from the hardest to reach backgrounds in terms of access to a cultural offer.

Advance to November 2010 and we are producing an interactive ‘digital theatre’ installation in a disused shop in Oldham Town Centre (where Peshkar is based and has done so much important work in the past twenty years).  In this space we engage with hundreds of local young people presenting them a range of imagery and technology aimed at arresting their awareness of this issue in order to create a original user voice for a production we are planning to take out into communities across the Pennine Lancs area of England.

The resulting research became ‘Nor Any Drop’ by Nick Ahad, himself a member of the Tamasha artist development network and told a story whose heart and soul reflected Nick’s own cultural background as well as those people we met on our trip.

FutureDesh, however, has always been bigger than one artist, or one piece of work and when Sudha’s ‘Small Fish Big Cheese’ was presented to me, I came to realise that what we had was, in many ways, the companion piece to “Nor Any Drop’ as it dealt very much with the same issues but with a very clear young British Bangladeshi voice, created in a school in Tower Hamlets with a class of young people.

As a theatre maker who also works as a singer songwriter, I am always attracted to work that has something of the polemic about it.  When I was writing the soundtrack to Nor Any Drop, I took my lead from a song I had written about my experience travelling to Bangladesh and that both me and the country turned 40 in 2011.  The song ‘1971’ became a statement about the people who, as they approach 40 are the real agents of change in the world, just as the young characters in Small Fish Big Cheese feel somehow helpless in their situation which is why they happen on this fantastic plan to write to Cameron demanding that the government do something.

This notion spoke to me in precisely the same way that all the great protest songs do and, as I always direct to the music in a piece and like my theatre work to stand like a tone poem, I viewed Small Fish Big Cheese in the same way that Dylan and Guthrie’s material works.  Similarly I think that the play has something of the Joan Littlewood and Ewan MacColl about it.  My song 1971 has the line “Where are all the protest songs” and whereas I feel that popular music has very much lost its way in terms of platforming the truly polemic these days, I feel that theatre still has this ability and artistic will. In my view Sudha does exactly this with Small Fish Big Cheese.

One of the most inspiring elements of the Small Fish Big Cheese script is that it deals with ‘the big idea’ and from that concept we have been able to develop a whole online multiplatform element that we hope will inspire discussion, creativity and further ideas to give the FutureDesh project further momentum and Small Fish Big Cheese a life beyond our run at the Unicorn.  If you’d like to register your interest, go online to www.wearepeshkar.com and complete the following sentence:

“THE WORLD CANNOT END UNTIL…”

6 January, 2012