Interview: Tom Hartwell Talks New Show Before 30

Tom Hartwell is at it again. After a hit run at the Camden Fringe with Flood and bagging equally favourable coverage prior to that with Contactless and You Tweet My Face Space, he returns to the stage as writer and star of new show Before 30. The show is set to play at Waterloo East Theatre from February 26th to March 3rd 2019 so I caught up with Tom to do some digging about this latest leap into the issues of here and now…

Reading up on your latest show, Before 30, it feels like familiar territory in that it’s all very current, very pressing subject matter which is prominent in the news. Are current events a particularly strong influence on your work?

Absolutely, I think we can all agree that current events at the moment in particular have a way of stirring up emotions. For me it has always been about keeping the narrative relatable without getting preachy, putting a human experience in front of the headline. It would be easy to rant about house prices in London or about how we’re all comparing lives with each other through social media but then you’re only telling audiences what they already know. I want to channel that frustration into something that can transcend politics, agendas, boiling it down to something more human, something that connects all of us. 

Chris couldn’t be more current if he tried, right? Not only is he a Deliveroo employee, but he’s facing a zero hours contract and financial struggles. What do you make of the culture clashes lying in highly modern convenience trends like Deliveroo and such a sorry state of affairs for financial security? 

Since first writing the piece I now see Deliveroo drivers and people in similar occupations everywhere. They’re all around us, from the Science teacher who quit his job because he could make more money as an Uber driver to the Deliveroo employee who’s just trying to pay off her student debt. These stories are everywhere, a new lifestyle that caters to the growing demand for instant and cheaper services, but a convenience that comes at a cost.  

Chris also seems to fall into the comparison trap. Why do you think so many people do this when it’s so often a damaging experience and do you see the internet as a particularly strong contributing factor to poor mental health?

I feel that we’re slowly waking up to the impacts social media is having on our mental health, and yet it’s a media still in it’s infancy. However, for millennials it isn’t just the constant comparison to people online, but it’s also looking closer to home. How much did your Parents or Grandparents pay as a deposit for their first home? How has that changed now? Have wages increased to compensate?  

I’m always interested in shows opting for a single performer. Considering the subject matter, what led you to write the show for one actor with no supporting cast?

It’s cheaper to run! 

But really it’s the admiration I have for artists who can pull it off.  Honestly it’s the most challenging experience I’ve faced as an artist, it’s given me a whole new kind of respect for stand up comedy. The intimacy between you and the audience is alien at first, you’re alone on stage, looking them in the eye, bringing them into this world you’ve created, silent praying that nobody yawns or checks their watch.  But then someone comes up to you after, in tears, and all you did was talk for an hour. It’s hard to explain. 

I also wrote this whist turning 30, facing similar questions and concerns about my future – writing the play was cheaper than therapy. 

Did you knowingly write Before 30 for yourself as the lead? Has anything changed between the writing and rehearsing stages?

It’s shamelessly how I keep myself employed as an Actor. I encourage all artists to give it a go – no one knows how to write you better than you. 

Having  outside eyes looking in is vital, my Director Phil Croft and Stage Manager Heather Christie have been invaluable with their input and reassurance. Once the script is written you need to let go and allow it to be picked apart and added to. The play wouldn’t be where it is now without them. 

My lasting impression of Flood lies with how well balanced the darkness and light of the piece was. Before 30 is another comedy drama. What draws you to this hybrid approach when looking at serious subjects?

I love to make people laugh, it’s a gift and curse rolled into one. But then again, people aren’t always in the mood to laugh, it’s a gauge. Comedy with heart is probably the best way to describe it, making people laugh is a great way to bring the audience on your side, when you feel as if they’re with you, that’s when you have permission to land a heavier, emotional punch. They’re with you now, and they’ll follow you to the end. (Hopefully). 

Lots of new writing has focused on the early stages of poor mental health or the impact of spiralling mental health. Before 30 is the first on my radar to look at ‘the resurgence of mental health in later life’ – were you conscious of this gap of sorts in the exploration of mental health in theatre productions and is it something you hope to remedy?

Yes it’s the idea that mental health is a new problem, when really it’s been there all along. When we talk about the gap between generations, we think about affording a house (or Brexit), but also there are support networks now for vulnerable people that weren’t there thirty years ago, or if there were, it wasn’t socially acceptable to talk about it. Mental health isn’t something that can be cured, it’s an ongoing battle that can be difficult to balance in any stage of life. We often associate mental health as a young problem, when in truth it doesn’t discriminate. 

Thinking about Flood again, your work explores our times with a good deal of insight. Before 30 looks set to take aim at an array of issues filling headlines and facing the millennial generation. Do you see the show as political in any way?

I treat writing a play like Christmas dinner with the family, don’t get too political, make your point with a bit of comedy and always save room for desert.  

Do you consider yourself a millennial writer writing for millennials or are you seeking a wider audience base?

I’m not really into labels, indeed I am a writer who happens to be a millennial, but I hope to go on and write plays in the future from all kinds of different perspectives. It’s how I make sense of the world. 

What would you like audiences to take away from seeing Before 30?

That it’s okay to be unsure about where you’re going in life – at any age, look to solve those questions within yourself as opposed to whatever filtered key hole you see others through.  

The play invites the question: ‘where should we be at 30?’ Do you have anything approaching an answer to that question?

 Be happy 🙂 Hope that isn’t too corny. – Sod it, be corny at 30, make people cringe! It’s brilliant!

To close, could you sell your show to us in just one sentence?

If you’re looking for a Deliveroo themed one man show about mental health this year, this is the play for you! 

So there you have it! Before 30 plays at Waterloo East Theatre from February 26th to March 3rd 2019 – you can find tickets here.

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