Interview: Tom Foreman Talks New Play “Big Boys”

Tom Foreman’s “Big Boys” is set to play The Lion and Unicorn Theatre next month (6 – 10 July 2021). As a personal play exploring the challenges of growing up, the changing nature of friendships and poor mental health in young men, there’s a lot to cover here, and cover it we do! Here, Foreman reflects on getting back to live theatre and the way his own experiences and have influenced his writing of “Big Boys”…

First of all, how over the moon are you to be back in a theatre space creating theatre for live audiences?

It feels so surreal. I haven’t been on stage since February 2020, and I think that moment the lights go up for the first time is going to be quite emotional. It’s been fantastic rehearsing and collaborating with people in person again – I think I was about at my limit of Zoom calls after the final half of my degree ended up online too. So yes, in short, being back in a space creatively feels pretty incredible. Being back performing on stage is incomprehensible at the moment, but I can’t wait. 

With “Big Boys” playing the Lion and Unicorn in July, we’d better get to that! What drew you to this story about the shifting landscape of a friendship over a ten year period?

Largely my own experiences. I’ve had quite a complicated relationship with my feelings towards university, and I noticed pretty early on that all these promises of uni as the golden years of your life weren’t really ringing true for me. One thing I noticed quickly was how much friendships change when everyone goes off to university, and it made me look back a lot on my own friendships and how they had grown and (some) had dissipated.

In my eyes, our relationships with others are at the very core of our humanity, and I’d never really seen anything that focuses so centrally on the ebb and flow of friendships themselves, yet these are probably some of the most important dynamics in our lives. So, I thought it would be really interesting to explore a story that focuses so centrally on the shifting landscape of a friendship, and exploring the whys and hows of that journey. I found myself writing specifically about male friendship because, having gone to an all-boys school, this is what I know the best, but also because I think male friendship particularly is under-explored in writing and theatre.

How would you characterise this ‘fast-paced but intimate exploration of male friendship’ in terms of genre? With its pop culture references and broad themes, are we talking drama, comedy or a hybrid of some description?

I’d probably describe it as a drama with comedic elements. I find in my writing that I always tend to merge genres. My view is that real life is never just one thing: there’s always beauty in the sadness and sacrifices that are made for happiness, and so I find the blurring of genres a useful way to explore my plays further.

For “Big Boys”, it’s definitely primarily a drama, but particularly in their younger years and throughout, there are very light-hearted moments, and I’ve tried to strike a fine balance between the heavier themes of the play with the upbeat, softer moments throughout. But yes, definitely audiences can expect a mixture of the two. Pop culture references include LMFAO’s ‘Sexy and I Know It’, and it’s really quite hard to reference that one with a straight face! 

“Big Boys” is clearly engaged with current discussions around young men’s mental health – do you hope that this play will open eyes to that very specific area of awareness?

I hope so. I’m certainly not claiming to have the magic equation that will solve the mental health endemic in young men, but rather it’s my contribution to the conversation, adding a story of male friendship and exploring how that might play a role in male mental health. It’s an area that, as a society, we’ve come a long way on in the past decade, but we’ve still got a long way to go. A lot of the material is based at least in part on experiences of myself or my friends growing up, and so the play is really quite personal to me.

I hope that it will resonate with others in a similar way, and people will be able to recognise the characters in their friends or family, and in doing so just remind people that often the biggest battles are fought privately. I’ve been telling myself that if it triggers just one productive conversation about mental health, then my job as a writer will have been successful. 

And with its focus on male mental health within a coming-of-age narrative, can we expect some exploration of other related discussions – around toxic masculinity for instance?

Absolutely. When I was at school, the culture (given it was all boys) was something that could get quite toxic between us. I always imagine male friendships as a bit like magnets. When they come together, and they work, there’s this instant click and it’s like everything just flows. But equally, there’s the other side to the friendship which is when uncomfortable topics come up, and the magnets just resist each other and there’s this invisible force between them. I think that people have this view of toxic masculinity being something very obvious and maybe even bullish, but in my eyes toxic masculinity comes down to that magnetic resistance that seems so prominent in male friendships, this inability to communicate when we need to the most. So there’s definitely those discussions that are had in the play.

However, on a lighter note, there are also some really fun discussions that are had. Particularly so is that of exploring the past ten years, and growing up within them. I’m always hesitant referring to it as ‘nostalgic’, but there’s a generation of us coming into adulthood now who experienced our teens throughout the 10s, and very soon it will certainly be nostalgic in the same way that the 90s and 00s are now. So the play is also a bit of an ode to growing up in the last 10 years, and that’s where we bring in all our wonderful, ridiculous pop-culture references.

This is new work too, so would you say you are primarily interested in new work and/or topical work?

As a writer, I never get into a play thinking that I want it to be topical. My goal is only ever to tell a story. However, of course, from a story audiences take their own messages and meanings, and so naturally stories become topical. “Big Boys” is undeniably topical, but what really drew me to writing it was not its themes but the journey it takes the audience on. The themes come out of that journey, rather than the other way around. I think in that way you get the best of both worlds: you get a really genuine story that triggers important conversations but without those issues being pushed down the audience’s throat. At least, that’s the way I’m trying to do it in “Big Boys”. I guess the audience are the ultimate judges of whether I’m successful!

What are you most hoping audiences will take away from seeing “Big Boys”?

I try not to give myself expectations about what the audience will take away from it. I think theatre is at its best when it is personal – I think all forms of art are like that. So for me, whatever an individual audience member takes from it is the most genuine thing that they should take from it. Of course, I have my own personal views of the play. For example, I’ve touched on my job being successful if just one productive conversation about mental health is triggered by the show. However, the show is much more than just a mental health play, so I hope that audiences will make their own conclusions from it.

And finally, in just one sentence – why should audiences see “Big Boys”?

You should go and see “Big Boys” if you, like me, have missed fast-paced exciting theatre, and want to see a story about growing up, friendship, and how we try to convince ourselves we’re doing just fine.

So there you have it! Remember, Big Boys plays The Lion & Unicorn Theatre from 6 – 10 July 2021 and you can get your tickets here.

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