Interview: John Stanley, The Monkey

Next month, Battersea’s Theatre503 plays host to Homecomings, a festival of new plays by prisoners and ex-prisoners about getting out and going home. Produced in partnership with the Synergy Theatre Project, the festival runs from 21st February to 18th March and will feature two of the winners of Synergy’s third national prison scriptwriting competition – Glory Whispers by Sonya Hale and The Monkey by John Stanley.

John, a lifelong Londoner, describes The Monkey as “a dark, comic contemporary drama of criminality, addiction and money owed”. The four characters he’s created, he explains, offer “a brief glimpse of the many diverse and varied people I met during my life’s erratic and unusual journey”.


Until he joined the Synergy project, John never imagined a future as a playwright: “The short answer is no, although I’ve always dabbled in poetry. Recently I completed a book about my life, but the truth is that until I completed the Synergy playwriting course I never had an interest in theatre.”

The Synergy Project, founded in 2000, seeks to build a bridge from prison to social reintegration, prevent young people from entering the criminal justice system, and inspire change by capturing the imagination of participants and public. After learning about the project from a friend who worked at the Young Vic, John joined the Synergy playwriting course and went on to write The Monkey. He’s thrilled to have his first ever play selected as a winner, out of a record 134 entries.

“I was over the moon when I found out, truly elated. Synergy has had such an enormously positive impact on my life that it’s impossible to quantify in a few sentences.” His advice to others thinking about getting involved in Synergy is simple: “Don’t hesitate and don’t delay, take the opportunity and go for it immediately.”

John’s now looking forward to seeing his work come to life on stage: “It’s exciting and nerve-wracking to see it come to life. I wrote The Monkey in 2012 and when I finally got to hear it in its entirety at the rehearsed reading recently, it was somewhat unreal but it was really gratifying. I am a touch nervous as to whether people will like it or not, though my feeling is you either do or you don’t and that’s how it is. Some people will find it hilarious and some won’t, but I hope they at least find it funny. If they do that would be wonderful.

“I’m sure I portray a world that most people are unaware of, so I hope they go away educated in some degree to an underbelly that exists in their midst – but most of all I hope they find it funny and have a good laugh.”

Catch The Monkey and Glory Whispers at Theatre503 from 21st February to 18th March.

Interview: Palindrome Productions, Watching Glory Die

“Our major and abiding goal is giving voice to the dispossessed – those written out of history. Live performance has the ability to wake the dead and let them speak,” explains Lesley Ferris, director and co-founder of British-American company Palindrome Productions. “It’s always a highlight for us to witness the astonishment of audience members at seeing a living history about which they knew little if anything: the history of the British actress and suffrage, for instance, or the British history behind Palestine. Both of these still impact us today.”

The company’s latest offering, Watching Glory Die by Judith Thompson, was inspired by the true story of 19-year-old Canadian inmate Ashley Smith, who choked herself to death while her prison guards, on suicide watch, stood by and did nothing. Opening at Cockpit Theatre on 19th July, the play sees three women – prison inmate Glory, her mother and her guard – portrayed by a single performer, Victoria Fox.

Photo credit: Palindrome Productions
Photo credit: Palindrome Productions

Both Lesley and dramaturg Penny Farfan – Professor of Drama at the University of Calgary and past editor of Theatre Journal – have long admired the work of Judith Thompson, a leading Canadian playwright, and seized the opportunity to work together on Watching Glory Die. “Thompson is a unique voice in Canadian theatre, renowned for her distinctive combination of poetic power and shocking brutality, as exemplified in Watching Glory Die,” says Penny. “She’s helped to shape modern Canadian theatre by staging aspects of society not typically seen on stage. In doing so, her work has found an international, as well as national, audience.

“Palindrome has a commitment to women playwrights, marginalized voices, and social justice. With its three female characters and its exploration of the tragic failure of the correctional system to serve the needs of one of its most vulnerable inmates, Thompson’s play is a perfect match for Palindrome. And the production offers a wonderful opportunity for London audiences to see a recent play by an important contemporary playwright.”

Palindrome’s co-founder Lesley Ferris has a long-standing passion for women’s writing: “Women have historically been marginalized and in some cases removed from history.  When I first began to study women playwrights, after I finished my degrees, I was horrified that no teacher or professor ever talked about or rarely included women’s work in their courses. Aphra Behn was a 17th century British playwright and the second most produced following the Restoration. She wrote amazing comedies that had feminist themes, and she was the first woman in Britain to write roles that women would actually perform. After her death her plays were still produced but by the time of the Victorian era she was quietly removed from sight – a woman who wrote comedies! Strong vibrant roles for women! Get rid of her!!

“History informs the present, so discovering Aphra made me think abut the present – and theatre is the art form of the present tense, so I’m committed to producing women writers and encouraging others to do so. In the USA a campaign for more women playwrights began a few years back: 50/50 in 2020 – 50% of plays produced by women by 2020, which is the centenary of the vote for women in the USA.  Scholars and theatre artists are tracking this, and there may be recently a bit of improvement but there’s still a long way to go.”


Why should audiences come and see Watching Glory Die? “Multiple reasons!” says Lesley. “The play addresses an aspect of our culture – incarceration of women – that has become more extreme and problematic in the 21st century. But it’s also an opportunity to see Judith Thompson’s work, and how she imagines a solo work that takes in three distinct roles. By making this a solo work instead of a three-hander, Thompson points out the links to be made between women.”

Penny adds one more reason: “Ashley Smith was Canadian, but the issues that Thompson’s play raises transcend national borders. As Thompson has said, ‘There are Ashleys all over the world.’”

Catch the UK premiere of Watching Glory Die from 19th-23rd July at Cockpit Theatre.