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My Country: A Work in Progress coming to Cambridge Arts Theatre

Penny Layden in My Country
Penny Layden in My Country

Actress Penny Layden stars in this unique new production about Brexit, written by Carol Ann Duffy.

Penny Layden in My Country
Penny Layden in My Country

You may not instantly know the name, but you’ll certainly know many of the productions Penny Layden, a talented forty-something actress, has been in over the past 20 years.

Grantchester, Call the Midwife, EastEnders, The Bill, Silent Witness and the Johnny Depp film The Libertine are just some of the TV programmes and films to which she’s lent her considerable talents – and her latest project may just be her most interesting to date, for My Country: A Work in Progress is not your average play.

In what may well be a first, the dialogue was constructed with actual quotes from members of the general public – as well as party leaders – about the EU Referendum on June 23 last year, with Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy adding the rest.

In the play, directed by Rufus Norris, Britannia calls a meeting in order to listen to her people. Caledonia, Cymru, East Midlands, North East, Northern Ireland and the South West bring the voices of their regions and the subsequent debate is fiery and full of passion.

Stereotypes are nailed and opinions are divided. Can there ever really be a United Kingdom?

“It’s going well,” Penny told the Cambridge Independent. “We’re in Cardiff at the moment, and we’ve had really good houses and the response has been lovely.”

She added: “I think people find it really interesting because it’s so accessible. It’s real people’s real words, in the main.

“What I like about it is it’s so balanced. It’s not about judgement or telling people what they should have done or what they should think politically. It’s just giving a voice to people who felt that they weren’t heard during the referendum. So I think the immediacy and the accessibility of it is what I really like, and the way the piece is presented is quite bold, I think.”

Verbatim accounts of real people’s real words make up a large proportion of the play and this has been given a “framework” by Carol Ann Duffy. “I get the glory of speaking her beautiful poetry during the piece as ‘Britannia’,” explained Penny, “which is great – she’s a brilliant writer.

“She wrote in the room; she was in rehearsals all the time so she wrote as we went. She’s very good at writing for specific actors. She’ll use what you bring to the room, which is a really exciting way to work, if a little hairy, because you often don’t get your material until quite late.”

Interviewers gathered around 100 hours’ worth of comment from the public, which was then “filtered through” and given to the actors.

Penny said: “There’s almost nothing more interesting than what real people say.”

My Country is to be made into a BBC TV film and Penny is keen to stress that despite its contentious subject matter, the story doesn’t let the heated nature of the debate dominate the proceedings.

“There’s been a lot of animosity on both sides, with people judging each other. But what’s really important to say is that because of the way it’s done, it’s very funny – there’s a lot of humour in it.”

From June 12-17. Tickets £18-£33. Cert 14+. Book at cambridgeartstheatre.com.

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