An interview with Maureen Lennon, writer of Baby, He Loves You

How well do we know those who love us the most? Bride-to-be Jodie is enjoying a rollercoaster of engagement parties and hen dos as her big day approaches. But when skeletons begin to tumble out of the closet, she must finally question what it means to love your family, no matter what.

Maureen Lennon

Baby, He Loves You is a new play that weaves together original music, aerial acrobatics and storytelling under the intense gaze of a wedding party on Stage@TheDock in Hull.

As Middle Child reach the midpoint of rehearsals, writer Maureen Lennon reveals her inspiration for the play and insights into her process.

Q: When did you know that you that you wanted to write this story?

I started writing this story back in 2018. I did a residency that Middle Child had set up, called Concrete Retreat. We were asked to all come with a question that we were interested in exploring and they ran what you’d think of as a Writers’ Room.  I was in a stage of my life where all my friends were in long-term relationships (most of us), but that was kind of a new thing. Maybe we’d all been in them for a couple of years and we were negotiating all that comes with that: suddenly having to address loads of stuff that perhaps we weren’t expecting. I was like “We’re all feminists here, so how is the conversation we’re all having every time: ‘Can you just pick up your own clothes?’ and ‘I don’t want to do all the hoovering’.”

So, I came in with a really earnest question asking how can men and women ever love each other in patriarchy? And we had some intense, big chats about it. It made me start thinking about love and romance and how they interact with patriarchal ideas, in a way that I think we’re perhaps less good at unpicking.

Then I did a load of reading and wrote the beginnings of the scene about this girl and her mates, who was getting married, and I thought about all the stuff that comes with that. And over the next six months I wrote a first draft and we did a reading of it, just as we went into lockdown.

So, it’s been about six years in the making.

Q: Talk us through your process for writing Baby He Loves You.

I’m going to be honest here: I don’t write most days. I do loads of reading and thinking and procrastinating, but that is because I do think writing is kind of the smallest amount of the process. Maybe some people are much quicker at this than I am, but it takes me quite a long time to have the thoughts and to know that that’s the thought. If I try and write before that, then what I’m writing is quite hollow. The core of the idea has to be there and that does take me time. So, I would normally be working on about five to six projects at once.

In terms of the day-to-day, I’d usually go for a run and then work (at my other job), then I’d normally do a couple of hours writing in the afternoon and then walk around (and cry for a bit) and eat some snacks – and then probably if I’m on quite a tight deadline I’ll do a few more hours in the evening.

I never hear people say it, but I can go weeks without writing a word and I think if that’s your process then you’re not alone.

Q: What inspired you to write a ‘pressure cooker drama’?

One of the things we did during Concrete Retreat was that artistic director Paul Smith gave us some scripts to read, and he recommended Violence and Son by Gary Owen – which I read and was obsessed with the tension in it. And the intensity of it. One of my questions was – and I think the play’s brilliant, this is not criticism of the play – what would it look like if a woman wrote this play? So much of it is about the ideals that we’re inheriting from society, and from our carers, and I wanted to explore what is truthful about that in terms of roles of femininity and how they’re interacting.

I’d also just written a lot that was very different to that. And I think I was hungry to try that form and see what it could give me. The last play I wrote for Middle Child, Us Against Whatever, was abig sprawling cabaret spanning years and generations. I was curious what would happen if I wasn’t allowed to do any of that. And I do find rules, formal rules, quite exciting and liberating when you write, so right from the off I knew I wanted the story to take place in this bedroom.

I was so keen on the bedroom because of 1) the pressure cooker element and the way it intensifies things. And 2) this is a play where the event isn’t what people are talking about, it’s how they talk about it. It’s about our private relationships that we have with people.

Q: Do you strive to put women’s stories at the heart of your writing and if so, why is that important?

I don’t think I strive. Anyone who has met me is like, yeah, that’s what Maureen is interested in, but I think I’m also just a person in the world. Us Against Whatever, which dealt with Brexit and politics and was trying to be a state-of-the-nation play, was exploring some big things about who we are now, as people.

And I think it was doing two things that people found unexpected: one was doing that from the perspective of Hull, because people think state-of-the-nation plays happen in London.

That was quite deliberate. But two, which I hadn’t clocked, was it was about two young women, who were the main characters. And lots of people said to me, “Oh, it’s really interesting that you’ve chosen to do the female voice of this story.” And I hadn’t considered that: it was more that these were the people that I was interested in, these were the voices that were in me.

There’s a joke in my work that we always kill all the men – that doesn’t happen in Baby, He Loves You (or maybe it does. Come see. No spoilers). Men’s stories can be universal and human, and so can women’s. So yeah, it’s great that women lead, but they also have permission to tell stories that are about universal human experiences.

Q: Some of the issues within the play have been at the forefront of conversations for a few years. Is the play saying something about how society interacts with these issues?

Yeah, I think so. I wanted to say something about some of the structures and ideals of misogyny that are so insidious in our lives. And that’s one of the reasons I chose the wedding. The way that the wedding operates in the play, and the way it’s like a barrel that keeps on rolling, that everyone’s inside and how hard it is to escape from that, all of the characters become complicit.

I think it’s understandable, if you’re in the role of supportive family member or friend, expressing encouragement and saying “You look amazing” all the time, then that really enforces compliance and silence with stuff that you might be uncomfortable about. To me, it’s a tiny example which is happening all the time in the world, on a bigger scale, and how hard it is to try to kick back at things and how much the world, because of the system we’ve set up, is enforcing that behaviour. To behave and be a good little girl and get on with stuff.

I also wanted to talk about the repercussions of when people that you really love end up doing bad things, and perhaps they’ve been really good to you, so how do you square that? And how do we all live with that? Because, truthfully, unless we all do that work, I don’t see that we’re getting anywhere.

There is more to everyone than the worst thing they’ve ever done, but there’s also more to everyone than the best thing they’ve ever done. Only if we think about that, and only if we can acknowledge that, can there be any route to change and redemption. And maybe if we allow for that, people would be more willing to self-examine and think about the things that they’ve done because there would be a route back to personhood.

Q: What about having Baby take place during the build-up to a wedding (and indeed, the day itself) appealed to you?

I think the thing about weddings is they’re really hard to talk about. I grew up thinking probably I won’t get married, but maybe I will, feeling conflicted; but actually I really love going to weddings. Can I preface this by saying I’ve been to some gorgeous ones where my friends get married, I’m weeping, I’m absolutely loving it. But they’re hard to talk about because people get so protective of them as a day and as an idea – people get quite defensive about them. And that’s really interesting.

Often people that you’ve known for years start doing mad shit. And you’re like, “Oh, I’ve known you for 15 years and I didn’t know that we really, really, really cared about the palette of the eyeshadow.”

I don’t mean that in a sneery way. I think there’s been a real culture of sneering at brides recently that I find really distasteful, the whole “bridezilla” thing. Actually when you investigate what they’re sneering at, they’re mainly sneering at the fact that women are doing an incredible amount of work and emotional labour of organising this massive party, which holds a lot of pressure and expectation. Often the partner is not doing that work and yet, somehow, we sneer at the woman for it.

It also felt like a great event and a great party. And there’s so many traditions that we, as an audience, can recognise and that we’re waiting for and understand.

Q: How does it feel when you reach the point when a creative team starts to put your work on its feet?

Such a relief, isn’t it? I love that point where people start discussing things. Because for a long time you keep identifying problems during an R&D or a reading and every time, as the writer, I walk out the door with the realisation that I have to fix it.

In rehearsals there are new problems, but better minds than mine are going to fix them and make them great. I do bits of directing as well, but I’m always strict that I won’t direct stuff I’ve written. When I have done that in the past, I learnt so fast that you lose so many creative ideas because you’re having to come up with them all and actually, how amazing if you can have four more people thinking creatively? So, I love rehearsals. I’m a little creep in rehearsals. I love to hang around all the time.

Q: What do you hope for audiences seeing the show, and that could be anything like a takeaway for them or the viewing experience?

I hope they fall in love with Jodie and Lucy. And their friendship. This play is a love story – but I think it’s a love story about those two. And that feels truthful to me in terms of my friends.

And I hope people do feel a sense of catharsis, or a sense that they can start these hard conversations. And I hope people are excited for the prosecco bar and stick around afterwards.

Q: Is there an element of the staging that you’re particularly excited about seeing manifest?

Yeah, I’d say the hoop. It’s cool. It’s so cool. We did the first day of rehearsals and everyone just clapped as soon as anyone held the hoop. As soon as anyone had one arm on it, we were, like, “Looks amazing!”. And, genuinely, it looks so good. I’m really excited for that.

Q: What’s it been like to develop this play within the current landscape of new writing, in this climate?

It’s felt lucky. Middle Child are amazing because of how much they hold you and support you in that landscape. Middle Child gave me my first full-length commission with Us Against Whatever. I have since written other things, but they were the first to offer me a second full-length commission for the same company. And that was such an amazing offer, because we get a bit addicted to new. Getting someone to continue to commit to your development and your vision and your voice feels so rewarding.

I think what’s worrying at the minute is the idea of risk has crept back in to such an extent. And all you need to do is look around and see that theatres who produce new writing are maybe still doing that, but if you look closer they might have to have four co-producers on board to do a play. So that obviously means we’re doing a quarter of the plays and that’s scary.

Developing this has been a dream and Middle Child invests so much in writers. They think carefully about how they’re doing that and about the balance of new voices which, as with Fresh Ink, their new writing festival, they really commit to. But they’re also committing to the longevity of people’s careers and voices. And I think that balance is very hard to get right. So, you know, our hope is more people will figure out a way that they can do the same in their organisations.

Baby, He Loves You

A Middle Child production

Writer – Maureen Lennon

Composer and Musical Director – Ysabelle Wombwell

Director – Paul Smith

RTYDS Intensive Residency Director – Rachael Abbey

Dramaturg – Matthew May

Set Designer – Bethany Wells

Choreographer – Danielle Clements

Costume Designer – Siân Thomas

Lighting Designer – Jessie Addinall

Sound Designer – Tom Smith

Company Stage Manager – Shona Wright

Stage Manager – Sarah Goodyear

Deputy Stage Manager – Jay Hirst

Stage@TheDock, Hull

Dates: 19-28 April

Times: 7pm, with 1pm performances 20-21 and 27-28 April

Tickets: Suggested price £20, available from £15