Mansfield playwright ‘steels’ the show by bringing regional characters and communities to the capital

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“When I first started writing, it was just little pieces, given I hadn’t written much since leaving school... I was never one of those people secretly amassing short stories or poems. I was not devouring fiction.”

Like any craft, or artform, writing takes years of effort and dedication, small triumphs often overshadowed by rejections and setbacks – but Warsop-born Beth Steel is certainly on a roll.

Even though she says that, when she was growing up, she was “far more likely to have been an astronaut than a writer”, her plays have made her the theatrical voice of the Nottinghamshire coalfields, with her compelling stories and fascinating characters taking the theatre world by storm.

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Recently having featured as a writer in residence at the prestigious National Theatre, in London, we spoke with the award-winning playwright Beth Steel, as she opened up about her journey from growing up in the mining heartlands of the Midlands to becoming one of London’s rising stars in the theatre scene after leaving school at just 16.

Beth Steel pictured at the Writers' Guild of Great Britain Awards 2023 at Royal College Of Physicians on January 16, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Kate Green/Getty Images)Beth Steel pictured at the Writers' Guild of Great Britain Awards 2023 at Royal College Of Physicians on January 16, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Kate Green/Getty Images)
Beth Steel pictured at the Writers' Guild of Great Britain Awards 2023 at Royal College Of Physicians on January 16, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Kate Green/Getty Images)

Chatting to Beth, I was impressed by how easily she fell into the local dialect, despite having moved away from the area many years ago.

Her Mansfield mannerisms and Warsop warmth naturally integrated into her voice as she spoke with enthusiasm about her evolving work and homely influences.

Beth's achievements are truly impressive, yet she remains modest about them. She has a deep love for the world of theatre and her hometown, which comes to life in her work.

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Her plays are often inspired by the heart of our communities, the coal mines that we walk over every day, and the kitchens where families gather and grow between semi-rural villages.

The Steel sisters.The Steel sisters.
The Steel sisters.

Her popular 2014 play, Wonderland, was set in Welbeck Colliery and portrayed the lives of mineworkers underground contrasted with the politics of Westminster on the cusp of the 1984 Miners' Strike.

After a successful run in London, the play was picked up by Nottingham Playhouse for East Midlands audiences to experience.

“The reaction from the audience was fantastic. People came from all over to see the play, as it was about them, their families, their communities. I am so pleased it was brought to Nottingham,” she recalls.

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Beth has written several plays as well as Wonderland, including her futuristic debut play, Ditch, a financial thriller called Labyrinth, and a multi-generational drama titled The House of Shades.

Till the Stars Come Down promotional photo. Photography (Marc Wooten and Sinead Matthews) by Simon Sorted.Till the Stars Come Down promotional photo. Photography (Marc Wooten and Sinead Matthews) by Simon Sorted.
Till the Stars Come Down promotional photo. Photography (Marc Wooten and Sinead Matthews) by Simon Sorted.

The latter tells the story of the Webster family over the course of fifty years, as they navigate social upheavals and the evolution of the labour movement.

Beth's latest production, Till The Stars Come Down, showcases her talent for creating complex working-class characters.

The play tells the story of a post-Brexit wedding in Mansfield between an English woman and her Eastern European partner and has received “incredible” feedback from theatre-goers and critics alike. Beth's most recent play was created in a similar fashion to her previous work.

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She dedicates five days a week to working on a script, starting with a blank page, and heavily driven by the need to begin an excavation to unearth her narrative.

“I am like a dog with a bone,” she says.

“I never start out knowing what the story will be. The way I see it is, that the play is already fully formed, buried deep, and I am an archaeologist unearthing it. I keep going with it until it is discovered”, she laughs.

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Although Beth has ‘Evening Standard Theatre Award for Most Promising Playwright’ to her name, her success did not happen overnight.

“There was a greater possibility of me becoming an astronaut than a writer, as I did not write or read much as a young girl for that matter,” she says.

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“I actually discovered writing in my mid-20s and it took off from there.”

Beth and her twin sister, Amy, moved to Greece after leaving Meden School aged 16.

She said they enjoyed the Mediterranean climate and valued their independence. At 18, the twins even started their own clothing business.

They were living the ‘Mamma Mia’ dream, a world away from the overcast skies of England and collapsing coalfields of a once thriving industrial landscape.

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“We lived there for five years,” she says. “It was great. We lived independently in a stunning country, and it was wonderful.

“But both of us started to feel there were other things we had never seen, never done. We knew Greece would always be there - whereas the experience of breaking out elsewhere would not always be there.

“So we left and moved to London.”

Beth had only visited the capital city once before during a school trip to the National Gallery and the Tate Modern art gallery when she was 14.

“I still remember it. I even remember the paintings. I go in and see them now all the time. But even back then – I thought, ‘I am going to be in a place like this one day’.”

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Beth said it was working as a waitress when first moving to London that gave her the freedom to explore the city and fall in love with its culture and vibrancy.

She was dazzled by the city's extensive art galleries and museums, and fondly spoke of her exposure to the theatre scene and its influence on her writing.

“When I first started writing, it was just little pieces, given I hadn’t written much since leaving school... I was never one of those people secretly amassing short stories or poems. I was not devouring fiction.”

It was seeing a contemporary play one evening that made Beth fall deeply in love with theatre as she felt it was an art form she could understand and something she wanted to explore more.

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“It blew my mind,” she says. “I thought there was something about the play that I could innately understand and I started writing after that, but most of it was terrible.

“But the whole point was I did not know that then and I did not care. I allowed myself to fall in love with writing and gradually got better.”

Beth expressed her gratitude towards her supportive parents, David and Maureen Steel, who still live in Warsop.

She also expressed admiration for her artistic – and equally talented – sister, Amy who also lives in London.

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It seems the twins possess a strong artistic flair as well as an identical likeness. Both women share a infectious passion for creating art – Beth by writing scripts that come to life on stage, and Amy through adding depth and detail to her stunning collection of paintings.

Amy's first solo exhibition was launched at The Bim Bam Gallery in Paris, titled ‘Out Of Thin Air’.

The exhibition featured a collection of oil paintings on canvas that portray dreamlike natural landscapes, highlighting varied spaces of desire.

“It was a full circle moment on the opening week of Till the Stars Come Down, as I was seeing my play debut at the National Theatre while Amy was opening up her art exhibition in Paris” says Beth. “She is an incredibly talented artist.”

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As an aspiring creative writer myself – and also a former Meden School student – I’m heavily influenced by the local landscape and deeply rooted in the district, so I wondered if Beth too felt an intrinsic sense of responsibility to tell our stories.

“Oh yes, it feels hugely important,” she replies. “Not only to have a regional voice but to be bringing regional characters and stories to central London.”

Interest in Beth’s compelling and community-focused writing has grown over the last ten years as she continues to captivate audiences with complex characters, dynamic drama, effortless timing and an alluring sense of energy that leaves audiences wanting more.

She is immensely humorous and entirely humble, offering some solid advice for aspiring writers. (*Takes notes*)

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“Writing requires self-belief before others will believe in you,” she says. “Always have faith in yourself and keep going.

“I firmly believe that many individuals have the ability to write, even if they may not realise it. We all have stories in us.”

Till the Stars Come Down is now available to stream at National Theatre Home – www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/national-theatre-online/