Theatre Royal Haymarket

In Conversation with Daytona playwright and actor Oliver Cotton

Thursday, June 5th, 2014


Ask Oliver Cotton what his starting point was for Daytona and he hesitates. He’s not being evasive – it’s just that, like any play, it draws on a lifetime’s experience. But if there was a single moment when the idea suggested itself, it was some years ago by a poolside in the Florida resort of Daytona Beach, an hour’s drive north of Orlando.

“Lying by that crowded pool I suddenly imagined the inciting moment of the play and couldn’t get it out of my head. For me, plays always start with small images or a ‘what if?’ situation. The ‘what if?’ becomes ‘who if?’ and ‘when if?’ and then hopefully ‘why if?’

At Daytona’s knotty, irresolvable core is a conflict between our gut-level urge to avenge injustice and our more considered ideas about how a humane society should behave. The Old Testament creed of ‘an eye for an eye’ still has a hold, but so too does the New Testament recommendation to ‘turn the other cheek’. Neither philosophy is without its drawbacks. For this reason, Cotton’s own opinions, with all their contradictions, are reflected equally in Joe, Elli and Billy.

“What became clear as I wrote was that my central character was seeking atonement.” He says. And, by sheer chance, Daytona seemed the ideal title. He liked the way it contained the word ‘day’ and, even better, part of the word ‘atonement’. It was a name that would hint at his themes without being explicit.

It was thanks to a conversation with Maureen Lipman that Cotton was able to draw these themes together in the play you’ll see today. He’d had a couple of attempts at the script, but wasn’t happy with the results and had left it in a drawer. When he showed it to Lipman, she sensed its potential and urged him to complete another draft. She fancied playing Elli herself and what bigger vote of confidence could a playwright wish for? “I worked on some more of it, we showed it to one of our producers Jenny Topper, who liked it, and slowly it happened,” he says.

Daytona is unusual in offering three substantial parts for older actors. Plays and stories often centre round workplaces and characters have jobs – teacher, businessman, architect etc. if the person is, say, a doctor, he’s likely to be young or middle aged. Therefore, as actors get into their 60s and 70s, they’re unlikely to play the doctor or the soldier because he’d be retired now. So, yes, there aren’t many roles for older actors. But although Cotton is an actor himself, he did not write these tales out of any sense of obligation or desire to correct an imbalance.

“I wouldn’t know how to do that, I just wanted to write a love story for old people. We always think of active love or a killing passion as a young or middle-aged thing. But in later life, love and the memory of past loves can be overwhelming.

To write a play about characters a few years older than himself is one thing; more impressive is his confidence in setting it in mid-80s Brooklyn with characters that are European Jewish Americans. For a playwright born in London, this seems quite a leap. Cotton, thought, has two things on his side. As an actor, he has often taken on a variety of American characters in plays such as The Philadelphia Story, The Grapes of Wrath and Barefoot in the Park, as well as movies such as Hiding Out and The Dark Knight Rises. He feels comfortable writing in an American idiom and indeed his last play to be performed in London, Wet Weather Cover, was a two-hander for a Brit and an American.

As a child, he grew up in a post-war, cosmopolitan household where voices from other countries were the norm. “I have a European background.” He says. “My mother was from Denmark and my father’s family was originally from Lithuania. When I was a kid the flat was always full of people from everywhere; Russia, Germany, France… everybody seemed to be foreign, my Danish aunts would come over and then I’d go and stay with my Czechoslovakian auntie. I’ve spent some time in Brooklyn and many of the people there are not so very different to the people I grew up with. Also, Harry Shearer was very helpful in rehearsals correcting specifics: “In New York we don’t say freeway, we say expressway.” Subtle but important changes.

Although he works full-time as an actor, Oliver’s considerable output as a writer includes several films and stage plays, episodes of A Touch of Frost and Diamond Geezer and a screenplay about the birth of professional football, The English Game. Despite this he classes himself modestly as “an actor who does some writing” and is delighted as any playwright would be to see what Maureen Lipman and Harry Shearer have brought to his creation. “They’re wonderful, all of them,” he says. “I’m very moved by what they’re doing and honoured that they’re performing my play.”

Words by Mark Fisher

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