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Assistant Director Bex Bowsher interviews writer of One Off, Ric Renton

One Off is the autobiographical (with some liberty) of early career writer Ric Renton detailing the time he spent at HMP Durham in the early noughties, when Durham Prison had the worst rate of inmate suicide in the country. This astonishing story not only examines the precarious mental health of those in the system but also how redemption can be found in the darkest of moments. I caught up with Ric at the end of the first day of rehearsals at Live Theatre.  

When Ric Renton walks into a room the first thing you’re struck by is his warm smile followed almost immediately by his dapper dress sense. To the observer nothing about Renton’s appearance screams ex-offender or recovered addict but he also doesn’t have the be-cardigan-ed and bespectacled appearance one expects of the traditional introverted writer. Renton defies labelling both sartorially and attitudinally, with a verbosity you wouldn’t expect from someone who went into prison practically unschooled (although he did read the dictionary whilst he was there) and the charm of something I can’t quite grasp the words for – perhaps I need to get my own dictionary out? Renton’s latest play One Off is an electric and lyrical drama that, much like it’s author, defies expectations of what a prison play can be.  

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

I'm going to pinch a question from the Royal Court podcast and ask -  what was the first time you ever went to the theatre? 

I've got a feeling it was when I moved to London nine years ago. I don't remember ever going to the theatre before that. I can't remember what it was that I saw. It might have been Wicked, actually. It was Wicked.. I heard about the premise so I was like that's genius. I loved the wicked witch and the Wizard of Oz when I was growing up, so I heard about how there was a rendition done with the witch’s sister, wasn't it? Yeah, it was about the lost sister. 

How did you go from seeing Wicked on the West End to going I want to make theatre? 

I was living in Dubai at the time and I’d been out there for about six years and I had made money, which is why I went out there. My personal statement before I moved to Dubai, was “if I just make money, I'll be happy” turned out to be bollocks. I had a beautiful apartment, nice cars. Was going on really fancy holidays but I was just killing myself. I was drinking, drugs and I asked myself a question one very dramatic evening on the balcony. I was fucked. I said if I had a year to live, what would I do with that? I wanted to create something artistic. And the first time that I ever said that was when I was six years old to my mum and I was like I'm gonna do it. I was 30. I’m just gonna give it another crack. 

You lived in Dubai? After prison? 

Quite quickly afterwards, yeah. So after I got out of prison, it was a struggle to get work. And I got a job briefly with a company, and then that company moved out somewhere like Hexham or Corbridge and it just became the point where I was like, I didn't want to start the cycle all over again. Dubai was just sort of coming up. By that I mean was blossoming - the construction industries and everything was starting to explode. And I just thought, you know. I would have a crack and I remember, one of the driving forces was because they didn't ask. “Have you ever been in prison? Ye got criminal convictions?” and I thought this is brilliant. If they don't ask, I can probably get in and I did, and I stayed there. 

What were you doing out there [in Dubai]? 

Sales, sales. Yeah, sort of a transfer of some existing skills that I had. 

And obviously you grew up in Newcastle. What was that like? 

Like it's wild. I loved it. I've got all fond memories of growing up in Newcastle and there was loads of trouble that I got in, but it's all part of the charm. I'm not, you know, I don't like regret how I grew up and it made me the person who I am today and I think I had to go through what I had to go through in order to arrive at this place. So I wouldn't take or swap any experiences out. I lost a lot of people growing up. From quite a young age, I started to lose people. And I think that, formed my outlook by the time I was getting into prison, that I kind of needed to stop doing what I was doing. I needed to do something vastly different? Otherwise my life span was going to be cut quite dramatically short. So there's a lot of that I love about Newcastle. There's a lot that's that's sort of cut a lot of my friends lives short as well. But I wouldn't. Yeah, I wouldn't change anything with my experience. 

You grew up in Newcastle, then ended up in the prison system for a while, then to Dubai, then to London where you became an actor and you flourished?  

Flourishing is, I suppose it's subjective. I love where I am in my career. I think it's really, really exciting, but I never trained; I haven't got a qualification for anything at all. So yeah, I came and I read some books and I just started having a crack. That's tends to be my way. But if I if I go I want that or I want a piece of that, whatever that might be, I'll go: “How do I get it?” And that was it. So I came to London and I said “OK, I need an agent”. And so I called up some. “Hi, I'm an actor. Can you represent me?” And then they just hung up the phone and that was when I started to learn that agents wouldn't see you or represent you if you didn't have three credits. So then I was stuck in this paradox of like “well hang on I need agents to get the credits. But I tried to get the agents”. And so that began. I did my first ever theatre job. I  got my first credit in Barons Court Theatre  In a Geordie Play called Bones

When was that? 

It was the year that I came back in 2013. I came to auditions and I walked in the room and I heard everyone was practicing their Geordie accent. I remember just thinking; “I think I've got a secret weapon here”. They were all shit. I thought, “I'm just gonna stay quiet”. And then when it got to the point where the director walked around handing everyone pieces of paper and said “can everyone just read this line?” And I think there was more than about 30 people in the room and everyone went through it and it was like nails on a chalkboard. I was like, “oh God!”. Then it got to me and I read it out and everyone had just turned and I just grinned. And then they said “are you from Newcastle?” And that was the first job I did.  

And when did you start writing theatre? 

Started writing theatre in 2018.  I got invited to the Soho Writers Group after I wrote something that got put on in the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was a short play. Radio play about mental health. And yeah, they liked it. And then someone spoke to someone in Soho who were like “can we can we meet?” I said “yeah”. Yeah, and the rest, the rest is history. 

What are your inspirations? 

Feel like redemption is a big thing that I tend to be keen on. I love redemptive stories and I love the idea of like whether by hook or by crook, carving out a second chance. So there's the thing that I unconsciously end up covering in some respect. In terms of like inspiration to write? I think I just enjoy it. I think, you know, like when I was in prison I read the dictionary, which was just an unbelievably … like I look back now and I could kiss the younger me for doing that 'cause it was such a bizarre, bizarre thing to do. And it shaped my ability way beyond my station for language. And when I finally did pick up writing, and I wrote and it was like, it surprises me. It does. I don't mean that in in a in egotistical way whatsoever. But I write and I'm like, I've got like this storage of these words and like ways that I enjoy to write things and when when it comes out “actually I like that” and so that's inspiring to me. If I go and do something, 'cause I haven't  got any qualifications, I've never been good at any particular thing in my life and that [writing] is, you know, a marketable skill. And so when that happens, I'm like, “wow, this is really good fun,” and it's amazing when people respond to it and they enjoy it. And that's inspiring. I wouldn't stop if I was shit but the encouragement definitely definitely helps.. 

Well, it’s definitely not shit for sure. I’d love to hear a bit more about how One Off came to Live. Did you just find Jack’s name and send it to him it and he loved it…? 

I got involved with this in 2020 because the artistic director for Paines Plough used to be at Soho [Charlotte Bennett]. And then she left. She's wonderful. Charlotte, I love you. I was invited to do some consulting from an addict’s perspective on a play that they were doing. And Charlotte just happened to ask me. She was like, “oh, Rick’s doing this play. Nothing In A Butterfly. Are you planning on doing anything else?” Now as it happened “Yes” and I shared that I've already finished a draft of what then was called 786. She asked for it, I sent her it. And then they give me a commission on it. And then once it reached a certain draft phase, I put it on on my own dime in London. I invited everyone that I could and Charlotte came. Charlotte then introduced me to Jack and then I met Jack here at Live on the 5th of January this year. And by that night he was asking if we could programme it in the summer - June or July. My first play [Nothing In A Butterfly] was finishing in May. And, ever ambitious, I was like, “Yep,. If we could do that, I can make that work”.  And then there was sort of a blessing of a reshuffle. And then I think it went to Septemberish, and then October. And there was just rewrites after rewrite. After rewrite. 

We did what gets called a Research and Development Workshop in August 2022, where we all sat in a room together and listened to actors reading out your play. What was it that you were hoping to get from kind of having actors? 

I wanted to hear it.. So the authenticity in this is really important to me. I really want it to sound like people are speaking how they speak. And so I wanted to hear if it sounded authentic, if the dynamics and the relationships were believable, and just if it was exciting. That was important to me, 'cause I know what I like to hear, I know what entertains me. And this is really just a big fat, massive, selfish venture for me just to be entertained. That's not true, but it kind of is as well. I always want to feel like, oh, that was fun or funny or interesting or “ooh, I want to know what they're going to say next”. So I just wanted to find out if it was going to work, you know? And then there was part in it which did and it was electric for me and there was part of it that didn't which was devastating. But it was really, really useful. Just to be interrogated on certain aspects of things. So I'm still learning. I mean, I know a lot. And what I do know pales in comparison what I don't know, yeah. 

What's been the hardest part of this kind of venture so far? 

Getting it down from like 190 pages to a more civilised amount 'cause there was like a couple of years worth of of experiences in there. So I was like, you know, trying to shoehorn a couple of years into like an hour and a half to potentially upwards of two hours was just a schlep, and also my propensity for writing. I wish that I could just go, “oh, here it is, finished”. I can't do that. I'm not good enough to do that yet. So I go, “oh God. Here it is, it's probably gonna be alright, but it might need a bit of work” and then I'll just carry on working on things until I can get as close to satisfied as I can. And so I think I'm probably the most difficult thing in this. Yeah I am the most difficult thing in my process. That's been the case my entire life. 

What's been your favourite part of this process so far? I guess I'm asking Ric the writer rather than Ric, the guy who's also starring in One Off. 

Hearing how people respond. Seeing how people respond. There was a moment today [during the first read through] and it was during Jock’s monologue about his wife having pseudocyesis.. As an actor, you kind of become tuned to audiences and there was like 14, maybe 15 people in the room today and there was a moment where that volume just gets turned down and you can hear just nothing. Those are the moments where you are people aren't really listening 'cause they're feeling it. And I suppose it’s the validation 'cause it's “I don't know if I can do this”. It's all brand, brand, brand new and so just people going “I think he did a good job” that's amazing! 'cause I don't have a background in this, you know, not a GCSE or a qualification. 

And if you could give advice to either your younger self or a young writer? 

So those are probably 2 very different things. 

Well, let's hit both of them. 

I would say quit drugs and alcohol sooner. To me, I would say I think I'd run out of things to experience by the time I turned 18, there was nothing new for me to explore. But. I quit when I quit. And it's, you know, it was what it was and it hasn't impacted on me too bad we actually know it hasn't impacted on my body at all. 

And what advice would I give to a young writer? It’s a funny one, man. I'm very like I I don't feel like I'm in a place to give advice yet. I’d say write for you, you know, like, write so that you're entertained. Write, what you find funny. Write what you find interesting. And then hopefully you'll find the right people who find that interesting too. 'cause there's certain things that are like, oh, that's that's a really interesting story. But I don't know if I would do it justice, you know? But maybe that advice will change as I continue to grow. 


Renton’s life story and my own couldn’t be further apart but the thing that strikes me is our shared determination to create in the face of the shit that life can throw our way. We have barely scratched the surface of One Off in the rehearsal room and yet the fact that it is an incredibly special and unique piece of writing is palpable. Everyone in that rehearsal room is dedicated to making a piece of theatre that surprises, stimulates and strikes the audience with its ferocious humanity. I can’t wait to share it with you all. Tune in to my next post where I am going to give you a sneak peek of Live’s updated cabaret space, specifically for One Off.  

Bex Bowsher 
One Off Assistant Director 
RTYDS Resident Assistant Director

Companies like Live Theatre and Paines Plough who partnered to produce One Off are dedicated to championing voices like Renton’s but they can’t continue to share these incredible stories without ongoing support, so please think about making a donation of any size using the link here.  

One Off plays at Live Theatre from Thu 10 - Sat 26 Nov 2022.  Find out more & book tickets here.

  • Arts Council England
  • Community Foundation
  • European Regional Development Fund


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