Catching crabs at HighTide

Playwright Joel Horwood's works have been inspired by his upbringing on the Suffolk coast and I Caught Crabs in Walberswick, opening at the HighTide in Halesworth this week, is the latest.

Lynne Mortimer

Playwright Joel Horwood's works have been inspired by his upbringing on the Suffolk coast and I Caught Crabs in Walberswick, opening at the HighTide in Halesworth this week, is the latest. Lynne Mortimer talks to the playwright ahead of the first night

Joel Horwood has an eye for a catchy title.

There was his award-winning musical Mikey the Pikey inspired by his schooldays, his guitar-strumming Leiston “cowboy” romance Stoopud F***en Animals and now the tantalising I Caught Crabs in Walberswick.

If you're local, of course, this can only mean one thing - we instantly think of the glorious annual crabbing event at Walberswick where families spend a day dangling their baited lines, hoping to catch the biggest crab of the day. As crabs go, the winners are not usually very big. Last year's victorious nipper weighed in at 5.75 ounces.

But if you're not local…

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I Caught Crabs was commissioned by Ivan Cutting, artistic director of Eastern Angles, and is a co-production with Halesworth's HighTide Festival.

The play is in preview at The Cut, Halesworth, from Friday, for a four-day run before Eastern Angles take it to the Edinbugh Fringe in August. It will then go on tour to sixth forms in schools throughout East Anglia in September and October

Born in Halesworth Hospital in 1980, it is somehow fitting that Joel's new baby - his play - should also make its first appearance in the town.

I Caught Crabs in Walberswick has been compared to Channel 4's Skins and is a witty and authentic portrayal of life with teenagers.

Now 27, “just about the right age to panic about not owning a house and not giving my parents any grandkids,” Joel Horwood is thrilled that his new play will premiere in Suffolk.

He says: “I grew up watching the Eastern Angles tours and I was born in Halesworth so this really feels like a home game. Although, in some ways, that's terrifying, it's also intensely thrilling.

“I'm proud that this is a co-production between the new blood of HighTide and the vanguard of the Eastern Angles. The Bill Nighys of the world are collaborating with the Ivan Cuttings and that's a great message to the Arts Council that they made the right decision in giving Eastern Angles a reprieve.”

Like most writers, Joel often draws on his own experiences and I Caught Crabs touches on his teenage memories.

“As a teenager I felt like everything I watched about my age group was set in an urban environment and that the portrayal of rural childhood was of a saccharine, Huckleberry Finn lifestyle that was also entirely alien.

“When Ivan commissioned me I felt that I had finally been given a licence to write something that I would have liked to see when I was in my teens and growing up in Leiston.

“I've drawn upon the experience of leaving the area and of choosing different paths to those of my childhood friends. I've drawn upon all those New Years Eve conversations where we either talk like we've never grown up or like we're trying to fill a gap that's grown between us with the tired format of a 'catch-up' conversation. Most of all (but without going into detail) I've drawn upon the experience drunk summer evenings on Walberswick beach with the girls that would holiday there and talk in weird accents and unfamiliar slang, about a world at the other end of the A12.”

Currently Joel is in the middle of an attachment to the Watford Palace Theatre and Nabokov theatre company, funded by the East of England Arts Council and he is occasionally lecturing on Brunel's creative writing course.

He says: “I collaborate as often as possible with a hugely exciting experimental new writing night in London called DryWrite - they've got a big facebook following - and I'm wrestling with an adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo for the West Yorkshire playhouse. So I'm splitting my time between Suffolk, London, Leeds and mid-Wales (where I get most of my work done).”

Joel has written a new play called The Dogs for Hampstead Theatre's youth group which will be produced in July. It is, he says “kind of Bugsy Malone meets The Krays, so hopefully they'll have a lot of fun with it.”

He is also hoping to adapt Stoopud F***en Animals for the screen and to rewrite Mikey The Pikey. “I'm really gearing towards film and television for the future. Ironically, it's the only way to earn enough money to continue to write for the stage.”

Despite being one of our most successful young playwrights, Joel is disarmingly modest about his achievements and demurs: “…although I'm thankful that my work has gone down well and that I'm beginning to generate a body of work, I'm intensely aware that I'm not where I'd like to be just yet; both in terms of my career and my writing.”

Joel grew up in what he describes as “the no-man's land between Minsmere bird reserve and Sizewell power station.” This was the village of Eastbridge outside Leiston.

He went to Middleton Primary School, Leiston Middle, and then Sir John Leman High School in Beccles. A talented basketball player - he represented Suffolk in the sport - he also began to develop his writing skills, winning the Aldeburgh under-18s poetry prize, before heading off to Darjeeling to spend six months in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. In something of a contrast, he came back to Suffolk and a got a job stocking up the vending machines at Sizewell B.

When he had saved enough for his air fare, Joel flew out to Vancouver, Canada, where he lived and worked for a year before taking up a place at the University of Kent. This is where the phenomenon that was to become Mikey the Pikey took shape.

The idea emerged from Joel's ponderings on “the British class system, the whole emergence of the 'chav' jokes and British poverty.”

Staged by the university's drama society, Mikey was selected to go to the National Student Drama Festival in Scarborough where Joel won the Cameron Mackintosh Award for musical theatre.

In Edinburgh, in 2005, Mikey was a sell-out and miraculously for a Fringe production, it also made a profit.

The following year, Food, a story set in the world of celebrity chefs, was in Edinburgh and won stunning reviews: “so brilliantly ingenious, so devoid of time-wasting naturalistic clutter, and so physically eloquent, that it takes the breath away” (Scotsman); “...fast and furious...fizzes with physical invention...the ideal purgative for those who've suffered too much theatrical pretension” (The Daily Telegraph); “...sharp, funny and wonderfully exuberant” (The Independent)

In 2007 Stoopud F***en Animals was briefly in Ipswich when it was performed as a reading at the Pulse Festival before going on to Edinburgh.

Playing the central role of the guitar strumming pub singer was Ivan Cutting, artistic director and co-founder of Eastern Angles, who commissioned I Caught Crabs. He says he wasted no time asking Joel to write a play.

“I realised that Joel was moving very fast through the shallows of the play writing world and being taken up by the BBC and big theatres and I'm thinking, just a minute he's ideal to write for us - especially to write for the kind of (younger) age group that we created East Anglian Psychos for - but he's very quickly going to move out of our orbit if we're not careful. So after Edinburgh (Fringe 2007), or it might have even been before Edinburgh, I said 'Look do you want to have a go at this?' and he leapt at it.

“I think he was very keen to work with us partly because he used to come and see our shows when he was a nipper.”

Ivan recalls a reference in Joel's Stoopud F**ken Animals to the old horseman and the frog's bone.

“And I said just a minute where did you get that from?

It had actually been in an Eastern Angles' play that Joel had seen “and it's kind of stuck there”, Ivan grins. “It's like feedback.”

When Joel visited Eastern Angles “he sat in our (poster-covered) room and said 'Yeah, saw that; saw that; saw that…' and one of the actors was the same.”

Joel is among a group of people now working in the country's top theatres that come up to him and say they remember when seeing Eastern Angles when the touring company visited their home towns in East Anglia.

“What's really nice is they want to go off and make their own name but then they start coming back,” says Ivan which leads neatly into the theme of I Caught Crabs.

While the subject matter for the play Joel's, Ivan discussed the theme of 'Do I stay or do I go' with the playwright. It began with Eastern Angles' “Christmas Eve Project - going round talking to people about this idea that on Christmas Eve all the people who've left come home and meet up with all the people who've stayed.”

Ivan says the decision people take about whether they stay or leave is often arbitrary and about lots of different things.

“I gave Joel the background theme and he said 'I'm working on something, I think I've got a title, Crabs in Walberswick and that sounded ideal. It's a kind of road movie meets buddy movie.”

After the HighTide previews, Eastern Angles are taking the production to the Edinburgh Fringe in August where it can be seen at the Pleasance Courtyard, every day at 5pm.

n I Caught Crabs in Walberswick is in preview at Halesworth's HighTide Festival with performances on Friday May 2 at 9pm; Saturday May 3 at 9pm; Sunday May 4 at 11.30am and Bank Holiday Monday May 5 at 5pm. Tickets are available through The Cut's box office on 0845 6732123 or online at www.hightidefestival.org price £10 (concessions £7)

I Caught Crabs in Walberswick: The story

On the eve of their final GCSE exam best mates, Fitz and Wheeler are fishing for crabs on the bridge at Walberswick. After hooking-up with sixteen-year-old Dani and taking a reckless road trip up the coast, the teenagers' friendship hits the rocks.

Wheeler is a high-flying comprehensive kid destined for university but struggling to live up to his parents' expectations. Football-mad Fitz is trying to cope with his chaotic home-life and his GCSE studies. Dani is feeling un-loved by her absent father and under pressure from life at a posh, girls' school.

Deciding which direction their lives will take is taking its toll on all three teenagers.

The parents have their problems too....

Forty-something Max is having a mid-life crisis. He has only had sex with one woman, he has never smoked a joint and he is feeling old. Bob is missing his wife and spends his days playing computer games in his underpants and bohemian Pam is hooked on Valium and torn apart by the break-up of her marriage.

'I Caught Crabs in Walberswick' has been compared to Channel 4's 'Skins' and is a witty and authentic portrayal of life with teenagers.

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