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Miss Mary Rose – progress on the Battle of the Solent

on Jul5 2017

I’ve been very busy working on Mary Rose Unbroken.


This week I’ve had to relook at the overall structure. I like to work in word tables, so that I can move section / scenes around really easily. But this leads me to some bizarre acts in chronology, and even though this piece intertwines two time periods, both still need to be chronological for it to work.

I’ve sat down and re-read one of my sources to check whether what I have ended up with is what I wanted it to be when I started. Needless to say, in my enthusiasm of combining timelines, I have gone awry. This has entailed a lot of fixing which has helped with deleting extra scenes.


I am aiming for a 60 min first act, 45 min second. At the moment my poor audiences’ bottoms will be falling to pieces. Both acts are way too long.

In order to help with time, I killed off a character this week. It’s a shame, I really liked her, but she added nothing to the story which couldn’t be worked in another way. She was light relief if you like. So she disappeared, as did her 1,000 words or so.

I find killing off characters quite stressful at times, and there have been more than one instance when I’ve had to go back to a previous draft and bring someone back to life.


Today I’ve been looking at the Battle of the Solent. This is where Mary Rose (spoiler alert) sinks. The scenes around this hadn’t worked for me, or others who have been privy,  so I’ve sat back and thought about what I could do instead. What I don’t want to end up with is a whole lot of people slumping to the floor with a giant aargh. It needed to be much more subtle, and given the number of people who lost their lives, moving.

Today I’ve used a description of the battle from the shore. Originally this was contained in a performance poem I wrote in 2013 (or thereabouts) when I was Henry, overseeing the day’s machinations. I loved the language and rhythm of the piece, but it was far too long for this new piece of theatre, and also, Henry has enough to say all ready. I’ve given the majority of it instead to Catherine Parr, his much younger wife of the time. I’m really happy for this solution at the moment. Tomorrow – who knows?

Check, check and check again

My final task of the day is to look at the blue highlighted sections throughout the piece. I leave markers where I need to go back to as, for example, I need something to pull the timelines together, I’m not sure of a fact, or the pace drops. I’m hoping to clean-up all the factual queries by the end of the day, which should give me a clear run tomorrow at writing a different battle sequence which needs more work (there’s a theme there!).

I also need to get my facts together as best I can as I have arranged for an expert eye to start fact checking for me, one of the original divers no less! More on that to come . . .

And, also today, I went for a lunchtime dip in the sea.

Boat in the solent

A calm July day on the Solent, perhaps similar to the day Mary Rose sunk?

The Pajama Game . . . thoughts on the show (not a review!)

on Jun25 2017

The Nuffield, Southampton Operatic Society, 24 June 2017

Last night I went to see the Pajama Game. First on stage in the 1950s, this shows tell the story of a group of workers seeking a pay rise in a factory. Into the mix are thrown a couple of love stories. One is between management and a grievance committee rep, another is between an aggressive-knife-throwing-jealous-control-freak and a worker, and the third is philandering husband who tries to get it on with every female co-worker.

Dodgy relationships

While the songs, and lyrics, were fun (some extremely clever), and the bigger pieces great to watch, I couldn’t help but come away with bile in my throat. How is it possible that a serial philanderer works in the company, creeping over every woman, that and that anyone would go for him? Prez is a gross character and I have worked in enough places to know, for a fact, that within three days of being there you’ve been warned about which men to avoid being alone with, which men are predatory, which are creepy and which are uncomfortably odd. But, the Pajama Game clearly shows us that if creepy, touching men persevere they will eventually get to have sex. Gross. What kind of message is that for young men watching this show?

Then we’ve got Hines and Gladys. We know Hines is a control freak from his clock-watching, we know he is jealous of everyone Gladys speaks of (he tells us this), we know he has a knife-throwing act (we see it), we know he can’t handle his drink (we watch that too) and we know he is aggressive (as he throws knives in a temper at work) and yet still, with all this going on, smart, clever, fun Gladys goes back to him. And we also know, as we watch this in the course of the musical, that Hines is not going to break the cycle. So here, as an example to men, we have drunken, jealous, abuse which is forgiven. And as an example to women? Forgive, forgive, forgive. Yuck.

And then there’s Babe and Sid. The mis-matched lovers who fight about hourly wages, and then he fires her. She’s been after a pay-rise for a long time, everyone else in other factories has had one, it’s fair and just given the amount of business. But, it’s only when he checks the books and sees that there is a fiddle going on, that the rise comes into play. And then she snogs him, because even though he’s ignored her, fired her, ignored her some more, he’s solved a problem which wasn’t the one she was fighting. Grim.

Workplace fights

The show’s set in a factory, where one of the first scenes shows us Sid shoving a sub-ordinate, and then telling people multiple times that he ‘shoved him’ as if this is acceptable behaviour, because there wasn’t a punch. This is the same factory which then doesn’t call the police to report Hines throwing knives at people in the office, as it’s ‘Hines’. Seriously? I worked in a company once where the boss threw a chair at a subordinate. The next week all the staff were out of there, not laughing it off.

Choices for production

I understand why people might chose to stage this – it’s a big cast, lots of moments for company singing and dances, roles for both sexes, suits the age-range of community societies, good songs and an element of fun. But seriously, people who make these decisions should take a step back and ask themselves what they are putting on stage. Is wife beating funny? Is sexual assault funny? Is misogyny funny? I suspect that this is the kind of clap-trap that Donald Trump and the far right grew up watching.

The audience all tittered away, except for one lady sat a few rows behind us. She commented the whole way through – that’s not funny, that’s gross, that’s horrid. Far braver than I, or perhaps unrestricted by the societal conventions that you shouldn’t speak during shows? The Emperor’s New Clothes springs to mind.


This show is definitely of its time, the dark ages, when the gate keepers were keen to tell the stories that kept the status quo. It’s book-ended with a comment about symbolism. ‘This show’s about symbolism.’ I’m not sure what the symbolism was, or why that was referenced as a great thing? I didn’t get that, as I was too busy wondering how damaging crap like this still keeps getting put on stage.

The production (even though this isn’t a review!)

And, a note about the production. It was great. Strong singing, solid acting (a few dodgy accents, but hey ho), fun, vibrant routines and an all-round feel-good evening that the cast and excellent band were having lots of fun.  I’d definitely see when of their shows again, but hopefully not something so far from the dark ages.


Bringing time together

on Jun7 2017
Struggling with Mary Rose
I’ve been really struggling with the timeline for the play, and how to make that work. Originally I thought about the whole piece as Tudor, and then as contemporary, and then as act one being Tudor and act two contemporary, and then reversing that and then . . . I was exhausted.
I  watched a show recently which told one story in the first act, and then the truth in the second. I didn’t enjoy that structure as it felt – to me – that I had been manipulated too much. All writers manipulate their readers, and doesn’t a reader chose to be manipulated, isn’t that what they pick up a book for? It’s the same with shows – we want to be scared, or emotionally attached, or on the edge of our seats. The trick is entertaining your audience and taking them on that journey without them thinking that they have been manipulated – you don’t want them to be aware in the moments of experiencing the work, of the writer.
It is so complex, and while it would be simpler to choose one time period and work within it, I can’t help myself needing to use two. At the moment I am going for interlinking both. I’m excited by the conservation, I’m excited by the build. All I need to do is to bring them together with cunning dexterity.
(On the plus side, there’re some absolutely cracking moments in there!)

Mary Rose Unbroken

on Feb15 2017

I am writing a play about the Mary Rose. This is exciting on so many levels, not only because it’s a new play (yah!), but also because it’s Arts Council funded, and I get to wear my history nerd hat all the time!

Research process

At the moment I am at the very beginning of the process. This is the research phase. This means that I spend time in the Mary Rose Museum, delving into the exhibits, and also viewing the Mary Rose. It’s a truly wonderful place. A little dark (that’s to protect the exhibits) and full of mystery. You can’t help wondering who it was that held the spoon, or sat on a stool, who practiced with the long bows.

The museum has a wonderful selection of volunteers whose knowledge is a rich seam that I intend to mine. Already one of the volunteers has showed me her favourite exhibit, the anti-boarding netting which covered so much of the deck. Although only a small remnant remains, it is thought to have helped to cause the deaths of so many sailors on board.

How you can get involved

One of the wonderful aspects of receiving a research and development grant is that I can spend time deciding what the final piece will look like. That means I am really keen to hear your thoughts too. Tell me your impressions of Mary Rose, share your favourite stories, let me know what fascinates you. Let’s go on this unique journey together, and who knows if you’ll hear your words being uttered on stage.

Keep in touch

Find out more specifically about the project by connecting with Mary Rose Unbroken on facebook and / or instagram.

To get back to my website, click on Zella Compton.

Lovely lists

on Dec13 2016

I’m not talking about shopping . . .  I am talking about writerly things.

Long list – long wait.

I have been long listed for Theatre Fest West’s playwright award. I had to send in twenty pages, and then wait ages, and was then told I was long-listed. Yah! This meant I had to send in the remainder of the play for perusal. I don’t know how many plays are on the long list. When I entered I wanted to be long-listed, that was my objective. And now? I desperately want to be shortlisted. Those that do – a mere three – get to work with a director and actors for a day and prepare the piece for a rehearsed reading. How cool would that be? Then the winner gets their show staged at Salisbury Playhouse.  So now I want to be shortlisted – but am not holding out much hope. I used tonnes of swear words as it is about relational aggression and teenagers. After working at a senior school for a few years, I heard it all. It can be horrible. Really tough. And also rather wonderful. But the question is, will the audiences of Salisbury be ready for my language. Hmm. We’ll have to wait and see. But I hope so. And I really hope I find out soon (if it’s a yes!).

Select few – short wait

I applied for a writer in residency role recently. And, brilliantly, I received an email today inviting me, as one of a select few, to an interview next week. I have to prepare a proposal of what I’d do if I am successful. I’ve just written pages and pages of ideas down and realised that I’ve planned out a full-time role rather than a residency. I can’t help myself, I’m super excited.

Auditions – Ambition

Then there’s the list of the people auditioning for Ambition – that’s the musical I was commissioned to write for Hampshire Music Service. Those auditions are next week.

Christmas – Santa and more

We all know what those are!

To get back to my home page, all you need do is cross your fingers and toes that Zella Compton gets on even shorter lists!




AMBITION – the most exciting project EVER !!!!!!!!

on Dec1 2016

I’m not really one for exclamation marks, but I am so excited about this project.

AMBITION has long been one of my ambitions.

(To write an all singing, all dancing, all shiny as you like, musical.)

Hampshire Music Service commissioned me to write a musical. I’ve been working on the book – that’s what the script part is called – since early 2016. I then met with a composer who works for HMS, called David Cefai. When we started working together (the day of the leave the EU vote), David had tremendously long dreadlocks. Then one day he turned up with them all shorn off. That was quite surreal, luckily he didn’t lose his musical strength (that’s a reference to Samson there, in case you don’t get it!).

Working with a composer

David and I worked together, I gave him outline lyrics, he composed. Some of the songs I have an original idea sound files for – when I was writing the lyrics the tunes popped in my head (I’ll try to figure out how to upload those – they’re truly awful). David made sense of them, and created other tunes, and made a magical score. He tweaked the lyrics to fit the music and introduced me to concepts such as the middle eight. I’ve always been in awe of people who can hear a tune and then play it, and sing to it, and make it better. It’s an amazing skill, and David would switch between instruments as he worked. Sometimes we made a chorus and then he’d send me a sound file of the verse later, sometimes we edited lyrics to fit, sometimes we argued, mostly we laughed.

Writing lyrics

That’s been a strange journey as I’ve never written song lyrics before. I have written poetry though, and I could feel the similarities. I learnt from David that you need to focus strongly on the idea behind the song, which was very hard for me to do as I like to to tell stories in my poetry – as I did in my original lyrics. Lots of my lyrics got cut, and that’s fine. As you work on projects it’s really important to edit, and reshape and stand-back and work out what really works, and what is vanity.


I’ve run a couple of workshops with the book, and one with David for the music. I think that’s really important as a creator, to share your work, and listen to honest feedback. If it’s slow, or doesn’t make sense, or difficult in another way, sharing your work helps ease out those sticky moments. And you also learn what does work, where the laughs come, where the characters have emotional resonance, where your writing has hit the spot.

The plot

Ambition is about a boy band and its management. It’s a year in the life. I think it will resonate with audiences, we’re all well versed in this type of story about manufactured pop. But, Ambition is deeper than that – it asks what you’d give up for your ambition? This is an interesting topic especially in the new political environment in which we find ourselves.

Want to be involved?

There is just a whisker of time left for young performers to apply to audition (until Sunday 11th Dec). Search facebook for Musical Theatre Project: Hampshire Music Service, to find out the details. Or, put the dates in your diary to come and see it Spring 2017. 12 May, Berry Theatre, Hedge End. 13 May, New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth.

To get back to my website, click Zella’s ambition came true!

Beauty and the Beast – Northern Ballet – Mayflower Theatre

on Dec1 2016

This is a stunning show running until the end of the week at the Mayflower. I’ve written a review for the Porstmouth News which I’ll link in as soon as it’s published. In the meantime, watch this ballet if you can get there!

The Wipers Times, by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, Salisbury Playhouse, Nov 2016.

on Nov28 2016

The Wipers Times – world war one play, set in Ypres.

Well, this is the first time that I can ever remember that I’ve left a show at the intermission. I was so looking forward to seeing this piece, not only because I know a member of the cast (vaguely), but also because I am fascinated with World War One (I have written a play about it called The Devil’s Rope), and also I quite like Ian Hislop on Have I got news for you?

Sadly, this didn’t translate as brilliantly as it should. I felt that there was an air of smug superiority in the piece, based on the true story of a group of men who set up a printing press in the trenches. It felt – to me – like every old-fashioned and dull notion that middle ranks were jolly clever, high ranks utterly malignant and low ranks thick.  There was nothing new, fresh or challenging in the way this story was told. You hear a lot about echo chambers in social media, this felt like an echo chamber on stage.

The actors were all great, working with given material, the set was a little busy with transitions sung brilliantly, but never-ending punctuation to the story, and the costumes / lights etc all fine. But I felt that there was no real heart and what I was witnessing was Ian Hislop’s almost-witticisms far too frequently.

But as ever, it was me (and my husband who went to sleep within five minutes) against everyone else. The rest of the audience was chortling and clapping and feeling the joy.  Perhaps I had built this up in my head to be the most wonderful play ever, and I am judging against what I had hoped for, rather than against going to the theatre and seeing a regular play?

Either way, it did do one thing really, really well, and that was the programme – which has interested me in the bigger story. Darn. I feel such a humbug, but also quite grown-up about walking away from the show that didn’t deliver.

Wind in the Willows – Mayflower Southampton Nov 2016

on Nov28 2016

A quick link to my review for the Portsmouth News.

Frantic Assembly – Things I know to be true, Chichester festival theatre (Minerva) Nov 2016

on Nov28 2016

Frantic Assembly – Things I know to be true, written by Andrew Bovell

This is a really tricky show to write about as it is so dispiriting. The audience was snotting-out globules of sadness all around me from start to end. Considering I cry at TV ads, I was very surprised to keep dry eyes all the way through, and the show employed all the techniques known to pull it out of me including characters weeping on stage, cruelty of words, chopping an onion (not real, but still, your eyes should weep at the thought), miscommunications, and  . . . the big D(eath).

I loved the humour moments, and some of the movements. The relationships between the family members and the easy costumes. I was less enamoured of the structure which was so rigid we all knew that we were going to be delivered monologue after monologue and pain after pain.

I wouldn’t watch this again, but I am a very small minority. Everyone else around me loved it on so many levels. Perhaps that day I had a heart of stone? I don’t know, considering the storylines were coming at me from every angle, as a mother, having a mother, as a daughter, having daughters, as a wife, having a husband, as a sister, having brothers. You know what – if the emotional resonance had been one of these I suspect I would have bawled along with the rest? But as it was all of them? Too much pain to make me believe in the stage reality.

Find out more about Frantic Assembly online – I LOVED their Othello last year, or more about me: Zella Compton.

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