Fran Bushe on loneliness and A Gig for Ghosts at Soho Theatre

Rori Hawthorn and Hanora Kamen in A Gig for Ghosts

The folk music-filled, gig theatre wonder that is A Gig for Ghosts arrived at Soho Theatre last week, to general critical acclaim. It’s a tender lesbian love story about two women who feel isolated by their London lives. Fran has been working on the idea since she heard about 38-year-old Joyce Vincent, a woman who died in her bedsit in North London in 2003 and was only discovered three years later. The idea of a woman being so without connections that she could die without anyone finding out stuck with Fran, who wanted to write about loneliness. The story was an ensemble piece, then a monologue, it went into a drawer and sat there and over the years she would rewrite and re-frame it, but during the lockdown, she took it out again and A Gig for Ghosts in its current form was created. We meet at the Soho Theatre bar to talk about it.

Where did your playwriting career begin?

I used to be a teacher full-time, teaching drama, then I went part-time, then the year I took Ad Libido to Vault festival, I left teaching. I couldn’t be in two places at once and I think I felt a bit bad because my show was about sex and vaginas. Trying to put on a vagina-related show didn’t sit as comfortably with the national curriculum as it might have. I was afraid my students would google me.

Do you ever miss being a full-time teacher?

I miss having free access to a photocopier and a regular paycheck. I miss those blue envelopes. But I wouldn’t go back. I can have a bath at 3pm now! 

And you wrote a whole book about your broken vagina!

I did write a whole book about my broken vagina. I had a different lockdown from many people in that I had an editor and so I had someone checking in on me every three weeks. Now I’m trying to write a fiction book and I’m doing that without someone checking in on me and having previously been in a wonderfully held, structured experience – for that, my lockdown was pretty wonderful and when I finished it I was like oh! We’ve just been through this huge thing! We couldn’t meet up in person and so I didn’t have any kind of book launch.

Did you do one when the paperback came out instead?

No… Maybe I still should. We lost so many things, there was no one that didn’t lose something.  I had professional grief over things that were in the pipeline and then couldn’t be, so I think it’s so important to celebrate the wins. A Gig For Ghosts won the Tony Craze award during the midst of the 2020 lockdown. So I was like, how do I celebrate this? Go for a walk and maybe take a 3pm bath? That’s why I was so intent last night [the first night] on celebrating, because me pre-pandemic would have been so focused on making sure every step of my career lead to the next, but now that has relaxed a bit because it’s so cool to be back doing the thing. I want to stop and celebrate that achievement before I worry about the next thing.

What’s the new fiction book about?

It’s a shy love story. I think it’s difficult when you are shy. I spent a long time thinking I needed to be louder and went through the motions of being an extrovert – but found it quite exhausting. Even being somewhere like here in the Soho Theatre bar, feeling like a lot of it is networking, I would always hide in the toilets or take a circuit around the block and come back. In this industry, there is a feeling you have to be a certain kind of person. 

So you said you started on A Gig for Ghosts 13 years ago?

The story of Joyce Vincent really stuck with me. I had just graduated, maybe? and I was feeling a bit untethered and I was trying to work as an actor and working with different people and felt profoundly on my own, so that news story affected me. In a capital city, how can someone disappear? but I could completely understand how that could happen. I have always lived in London and I don’t know if it loves me, but I love it… I don’t have anywhere else that feels like home.

So it’s about loneliness?

So the kernel was reading those news articles [about Joyce Vincent] and then I was really conscious of making sure everyone was connected and no one dropped off the radar. When I was like 23, I entered the script in a national playwriting competition and it got down to the final four. Knowing that someone thought it was good meant I didn’t abandon it, I just thought, I don’t quite know how to write about it now. Then in 2015, I did the Soho Writers’ Lab here and it was brilliant, I had a little buddy group and it was a year-long course. I write better when I can talk things through. I wrote the play during that year and no one knew what was going to happen. 

And it has songs, it’s based around folk songs and folk tradition?

I knew I wanted it to have songs in it. I’d written songs for Ad Libido and I’d only really written comedy songs or angsty poems before but I got teamed up with a composer and I’m really proud of the songs. I would never say I’m a lyricist but I have written two plays with lyrics in them so maybe I’m a lyricist. They play loads of instruments! They are an unbelievably talented cast. One of the actors, Liz, was hired to play drums but she also plays bass and triangle and she pulled out this bag of instruments with a triangle and an egg shaker! 

What’s it really about?

The person whose job it is when someone dies with no next of kin and it’s not been noticed it is someone’s job to notify next-of-kin and sort out the home and the funeral. It’s about what it’s like when that is your job and it’s a love story. It’s so hard to describe your own play. I’ve had to write blurbs and I don’t really know what it’s about… it’s very difficult to make it sound buzzy or make it sound overwhelmingly sad.

I think at the moment people are turned off by anything that might be sad. There’s an aversion to our own feelings post-lockdown and with the current climate but sad topics can be funny.

I think it is very funny and the saddest things often are because how else can you survive without laughing but the big things about it are loneliness and grief and loss of community which are sad words but it’s also about falling in love and trying to be yourself with someone and how awkward and weird it is to fall in love – and I think in London people build their own family and a lot of it is about building your own group.

Was there a reason you chose a lesbian relationship?

There s a study where lesbians came out as the loneliest. I think often because of a lack of obvious community and maybe places to gather in the same way? And I think for me, I mean, I just love writing about women and did not want there to be any men in this play! We have a completely female and non-binary creative team and it felt wonderful, very collaborative – and very calm. 

A Gig for Ghosts runs at Soho Theatre until 12 November, from £16. 

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