Coast to Coast: Tom Morton-Smith premieres In Doggerland

As a shoreline erodes, a brother and sister try to make a new start – and with In Doggerland, playwright Tom Morton-Smith continues his upward trajectory

Feature by Jacky Hall | 29 Oct 2013

Doggerland was – some 8000 years ago – a landmass in the North Sea connecting the east coast of Britain to mainland Europe. Despite existing during an Ice Age, Doggerland was apparently a rich environment, home to not only humans but also animals, including mammoths and lions. The tale of this lost, unknowable land has inspired a trilogy of science fiction novels (Stephen Baxter's Northland), academic studies and an episode of Time Team. It is also one of the inspirations behind In Doggerland, a new play by Tom Morton-Smith.

Produced by Manchester's Box of Tricks, In Doggerland is about siblings Marnie and Linus as they search for their home, family and identity on an eroding coastline. Morton-Smith is a witty and poignant voice among the UK's emerging dramatic writers. His work has been described by blog A Younger Theatre as 'raw, nimble and devastating,' three words that sum up the simultaneous lightness and emotional depth of the characters and inner worlds he creates. Salt Meets Wound, his debut full-length work, examined the War on Terror through one Londoner's journey to Uzbekistan. More recently, 2012's Everyday Maps for Everyday Use was an exploration of modern sexual desire, cartography and amateur astronomy.

Like many contemporary playwrights, Morton-Smith has followed a familiar route from being a normal person to a person who writes plays as a professional. He gained experience on stage (he studied acting at LAMDA after graduating with a drama degree from the University of East Anglia) before experimenting with writing, and developed the skill at new writing platforms in fringe-theatre pubs and black-box, off-West End spaces across London. Early short plays, plus a show at the National Student Drama Festival, led to Salt Meets Wound – and during 2007 and 2008 he was a writer-in-residence for Paines Plough, a London-based theatre company renowned for their 40 years of commitment to supporting and developing talent. This year-long writer's residency is a club with an exclusive membership, often with a radical liberal leaning. Previous writers attached to the company include Dennis Kelly (the teacher-turned-wordsmith behind Channel 4's dystopian drama Utopia) and Sarah Kane (writer of the ferocious Blasted, an exploration of the impact of civil war and a must-read on undergraduate drama courses). The experience was an important one for Morton-Smith's development as a writer.

“Paines Plough was a fantastically supportive environment for me,” he says. “They have a small core group who were very good at letting me write what I wanted to write. At that point in my career it was great having that freedom.”

Away from Paines Plough, the writer has also worked with other notable venues and companies on the new writing scene, including Theatre503 and the Royal Court Theatre. He is currently under commission at the Royal Shakespeare Company, writing a work that he says is so “top secret” he can't even detail when it will be staged. “They have a great focus on new writing, which will continue in the future,” is all he will say for now.

Morton-Smith himself is based in the South East. Is the geographical bias towards the capital a bad thing for new drama, contributing to a London-centric approach that risks shutting out a diverse range of voices and creating a theatrical groupthink? He doesn't think so. “London is where most theatres are at the moment and has a fringe network [that] doesn't exist outside of London – at the moment,” he reiterates. “I keep telling Box of Tricks they should open a black box studio space in central Manchester, so you never know,” he laughs.

London doesn't quite have the monopoly on intimate theatre venues keen to stage new work, however – and In Doggerland tours across the UK throughout November, appearing at several Northwest theatres. An eloquent and heart-quickening play about the complications of sibling relationships, Morton-Smith explains of his work: “My intention was that all the characters are inherently good, but dealing with a bad situation. It will be moving, thought-provoking and funny.”

In Doggerland premieres at The Lowry Studio, Salford, 7-9 Nov, and tours to Mill at the Pier, Wigan, 19 Nov; The Continental, Preston, 21 Nov; and The Lantern Theatre, Liverpool, 22-23 Nov