by Anna Longaretti.
I grew up in Kings Cross in the 50s. And to prove it, here’s a photo of yours truly in front of our house, or more accurately, ‘ouse, aged three. There are a couple of things worth noticing about this picture (apart from the obvious early indicator that this child has academia written all over her - in ink, from the newspaper she’s holding). The first thing is, the front door being wide open. Well it wasn’t open just for the photo op, it was left open all day, every day. It was the same for all the ‘ouses in our street. It’s hard to believe now that in an area as rough and run down as Kings Cross was then, that people only shut their doors at night or when they was out. The second thing of note is that I’m actually standing outside our actual house. My Mum usually insisted that all photographs should be taken outside one of the neighbour’s houses because she was ashamed of our wooden railings. You may know that railings were sometimes requisitioned for the war effort but they all ended up being dumped instead of supplying ammunitions factories or whatever it was people were told they’d be used for. But it made people feel ‘good’ to know that they were ‘helping’ even though they weren’t and it didn’t make my mum feel good, because ours was the only house in the street with replacement wooden posts.
Here’s my Mum in front of ‘Gina-next-door’s’ house and as you can see it’s so much classier than ours. (I know what you’re thinking but no, Women’s Rugby League hadn’t been invented yet. It was just the fashion apparently). She’s looking lovingly at her first born son, my brother, Dante.
And just for a bit of perspective, here’s a photo of the back yard. Well, not our back yard, but ‘Maria-next-door’s’ back yard, probably because she had an actual plant or something. Just a little aside; Isn’t it an incredible coincidence that both neighbours had the same surname?
In Kings Cross I never saw the inside of any other kid’s houses because we played in the street. We had tons of freedom and didn’t go home until it was dark or we were hungry. But I wouldn’t want you to think that my parents were negligent, I wasn’t allowed to cross the road unless an older kid or one of my brother’s accompanied me and then I was free to play on the bomb site or chat to the Madam of the brothel opposite our house and stroke her cat (you thought I was going to say pussy, didn’t you).
Although our house didn’t have a bathroom, we ate like kings due to the fact that my dad, Mario Luigi, Giuseppe, Longaretti, worked at Quaglino’s or Quag’s as referred to by the cognoscenti. Fillet steak and Dover sole were served up regularly and when we got fed up with fine dining, my mum would swap steaks for sausages and sole for fish fingers, with her sisters, so we didn’t miss out.
For me, school life was about having fun whenever possible. I wasn’t much interested in learnin’ ’n’ stuff, so when they were teaching us how to make rubber drip out of a tree I was mostly examining the teachers appearance. Consequently I have excellent recall and a fine example of this is Miss Villa pictured below. She wore bouclé suits and pussy bow blouses. Her jewellery was always big and always gold. Her hair was dark and shiny and I remember her imparting some wisdom re footwear. She told us, never to wear the same pair of shoes two days in a row. The reason being, they would take on the shape of our feet and ruin the line. At the time, no one had more than one pair of shoes but I was pretty clear that the information must be vital. And by the way, Miss Villa had one half closed eye smothered in green eye shadow (that came out wrong, she smothered both eyes, not just the closed one), it’s not a reflection of my artistic talents - as art connoisseurs can no doubt tell.
When I got to about 35 and in the midst of a career as a hairdresser and make-up artist, I decided that I wanted to go back to school and learn stuff. I signed up to my first ‘creative’ writing class . The teacher asked us to write four lines of poetry or prose about our names. In a complete panic, I turned to the nineteen year old next to me and asked her what ‘prose’ was. She laughed because she thought I was joking, but I really wasn’t. Such was the gaping hole in my heducation. Fortunately I made it through the course and at the end my tutor pointed me in the direction of a script writing class, she said that my writing was more suited to writing dialogue. I consider that to be one of those life changing moments and I’m grateful to have had someone show a real interest in me.
The following ‘Writing for Stage’ class was with a tough-talking playwright called Bernard Kops. I got on well with him because he was as blunt as my dad when it came to giving criticism. In fact no other teacher ever came close to him vis-a-vis speaking his mind. After his course ended I found myself taking more and more classes and courses. I liked acting out other people’s writing in class so I began acting courses too. I found out through various writing tutors that my dialogue was realistic and that I had the kind of imagination that meant my characters felt real. Perhaps I hadn’t been wasting my time at school after all.
After a year long acting course at the City Literary Institute, I decided to write a play that I could perform in as I didn’t want to inconvenience myself by going up for auditions. By now I was in my mid fifties and I’d been screenwriting for years. I didn’t have the faintest idea how I was going to get anything filmic made as I’m not one for trying to sell my own work and the thought of doing a pitch brings me out in a cold sweat. So I had, and still have quite a few unread (apart from friends and family) film scripts hidden in drawers. But all the advice about story telling is the same for film as it is for playwriting in that we should keep our protagonists under pressure. My play was called Sex Cells and it was set in a call centre that sells sex toys. One of my characters was a woman trying for a child through IVF treatments. Having to make love on cue must, I thought, be a strain so I made her field calls from people who mostly want to make their sex lives more fun? I wrote four other female roles as I wanted to explore all the various feelings, mostly my own, pertaining to motherhood.
The first read-through in front of an audience was illuminating in two ways. Firstly, most of the audience were in tears at the end (as in, they were moved not bored). Secondly, my husband, Mark, was brave enough to tell me, ‘Your acting isn’t as good as your writing’ and quickly followed that up with ‘We should put it on in front of a big audience’. After my initial reaction to the insult I thought, Wait! That means he thinks it’s worth investing in.
The next few months were a baptism of fire. We knew nothing about producing a play and thought, ‘How hard can it be?’ We often have a laugh about that now because it was flipping hard. I couldn’t find a proper producer, even though we were stumping up the cash ourselves. Though I did find a part-time bus driver/producer who was willing to help. Unfortunately we fell out after having creative differences, he said I must write in a male character who wears hot pants and I refused to oblige. There was nothing for it but to produce it myself and for Coy! to create a buzz about it with an ad campaign. There were posters, fliers, a trailer, a programme the lot. I was told that I’d never sell tickets unless I had a ‘star’ in the show, that the programme would never sell and that critics would never come.
Well, audiences did come and the programme sold but I wasn’t emotionally prepared to see my work performed in front of a crowd. I mean it’s daunting and I was a wreck. But after the third week, when I realised that the sky wasn’t going to fall in, that people seemed to like it - I mean they were laughing one minute and crying the next - that I began to relax.
After the rollercoaster experience of staging Sex Cells, we wondered if after closing night, it would disappear forever. Fortunately Samuel French the famous theatre publishing house came to one of the shows and offered to publish it.
I’m very pleased to say that nowadays amateur and professional theatre companies can take out a license and perform it in front of their own audiences. Sex Cells has been performed all over the globe, from Aberdeen to Australia and has even been translated into Greek! I’m especially delighted that between 23rd - 27th October the Roses Theatre Company will be performing it in Kings Cross, yes… KINGS CROSS!
I just wish my mum and dad could see it.
SEX CELLS will be performed by The Roses theatre company at The Chapel Playhouse, King Cross, London, WC1X 8DP