Looking back at her first play, Vicky Jones says: “I don’t think I’ve written anything as brutal since,” before adding: “I’m sort of appalled and proud at the same time.”
The 39-year-old is discussing The One, which blurted out of her in a week of feverish writing, and was staged at the Soho Theatre in 2014. It’s a sort of millennial Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. A self-destructive couple, Jo and Harry, stay up all night getting drunk, playing vicious games, having sex, and baiting his still-smitten ex, who comes over distraught after a bad sexual experience.
At its heart, the play has a brilliant, complicated, bored, cruel, manipulative and above all thrilling female part in Jo – originally written for Jones’ best friend, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, whom she met on a play just over a decade ago. The One, staged by their company DryWrite, helped launch both their careers; they then went on to work together on the hugely successful stage-turned-TV-show Fleabag.
There are similarities in how both plays exhibit utter candour in exploring sex and relationships, and utter fearlessness in putting appalling, yet compelling, female characters front and centre. Now The One is back at Soho Theatre, again directed by Steve Marmion, starring Tuppence Middleton as Jo.
The decision to restage it was made last autumn, explicitly in response to #MeToo. And Jones thinks it may go over very differently this time around. “I definitely feel like we’re a lot more ready to talk about various things that it deals with,” she says over lunch at Soho Theatre.
“It touches on the blurred lines of consent: whether it’s acceptable to call out an experience where a woman feels raped, but didn’t necessarily fight the man off, didn’t necessarily say no directly. Where she might not have felt in the position to say no, but it was very, very clear that is what she meant.”
That particular scene is highly personal for Jones, and she found the reaction to it in 2014 highly depressing. “I actually wrote that based on an experience that I was trying to make sense of at the time, and I didn’t know the answer,” she says. “You should be able to see both sides. But last time people were like: ‘It’s not even a conversation.’ It was just shut down.”
But since #MeToo, she thinks we are in a very different place when it comes to trying to figure out the boundaries between bad sex and sexual assault. The discussions started by the allegations against US comedian Aziz Ansari have been a particular touchstone when revisiting this play.
“There has been an explosion of conversations around what is harassment, what is rape – can it be something that a woman is ostensibly complicit in?” says Jones. “We have much more of an appetite and an openness for that.”
We are also, she thinks, now ready to listen to women’s rage. Finally. “There were definitely aspects of the play that people thought were maybe unnecessarily aggressive last time,” Jones recalls. “People were very ready to come down against Jo.”
Jones was shocked at the language used to describe the character, including “off-putting”, “in your face”, “too much”, “feisty”. She says: “I think – I hope – people might not want to [describe her in those terms] this time. Rage and fury is a glorious thing to embrace – or certainly to watch. We don’t have to behave like that, but it’s cathartic to watch.”
She was also determined not to offer a big emotional backstory for Jo. “Phoebe was going up for auditions, and any character who was badly behaved always had to be explained away – she was abused, or had a miscarriage, all kinds of ‘womanly’ reasons why she was behaving this way. And usually she either got her comeuppance or came around to reason. I wanted to see someone who was never relenting, who was furious – furious – and not even for good reason.”
Jones adds that writing specifically for Waller-Bridge kept her on her toes. “When you’re watching a film, she’ll always tell you what’s about to happen – and she’ll be right. So I wrote it to try to be Phoebe-proof. I created Jo almost through that exercise: someone who can never be predicted. Which makes her terrifying.”
So how do you stage this play without its inspiration? How difficult was finding a new Jo? “It was so hard,” Jones admits. “I want people to get Jo, and if they don’t get her I don’t want them to do it. She has to be played fearlessly.”
Then Tuppence Middleton walked in. “She was so clever, and joyfully, gloriously wicked. Steve and I both felt the same: it has to be her.” It will be the actor’s first stage role in almost a decade; she’s been busy starring in TV shows such as Netflix’s Sense8 and the BBC adaptation of War and Peace.
Jones is making the opposite move: as well as working on a play for the National Theatre, she is “helping out” on series two of Fleabag and has made a pilot with HBO: a comedy thriller called Run, filming in October.
“It’s a love story about a guy and a girl who knew each other when they were teenagers, and had this plan that if they ever wanted to escape their lives they’d text each other ‘run’.”
Learning a new art form is a lot of fun, although Jones knows if she just did TV, she would “miss the live aspect of theatre: everybody being in the same room, pretending the same thing”.
Her last play, Touch, directly drew on her broke years, living in a grotty bedsit. Presumably the allure of TV is also getting paid properly. “Definitely, TV is great where that is concerned,” she acknowledges with a grin. “Even when you feel like you’ve made it [in theatre], you aren’t making any money.”
Jones began her career as a director, and does not miss it. “You get six or seven grand for one job, and if you do three plays a year you’d be a ‘successful’ director. But financially, that’s not enough.”
She also found herself, as a young aspiring director, often intimidated or unable to ‘play the game’; the industry seemed skewed towards a certain elite, Oxbridge type. “I didn’t do very well as a director until I met Phoebe,” she says. “All the ones who did well in their early 20s were very, very confident. And so many gateway jobs involved writing long essays, and very intimidating interviews with people who talk really well. I was never confident enough really. I was really daunted.”
Even when she did get into rehearsal rooms, being a young woman often seemed to work against her. “I genuinely believe it’s hard for a lot of [young] directors because of those scary older actors – and they are so often men – who think their careers should be going better, and they take it out on you.”
Jones should have been a writer all along, she now realises. “I loved writers, I was obsessed with them, but I never thought I could be one – it just seemed like a godly position to have, to be able to choose the words.” She smiles. Because with The One, not only did she get to choose the words, but she also helped to change the conversation.