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Izzy Tennyson - The Great Ruckus Interview

Inspired by her own mother's funeral when she was a young adult, Izzy Tennyson (Grotty, Bunker Theatre; Brute, Edinburgh Fringe, Soho Theatre) returns to the Edinburgh Fringe with a wickedly dark play about the absurdity of rigid Western ideas of grief and class. The Great Ruckus, produced by Etch Theatre, brings to life how death strums dangerously at family and class relations.

Two sisters are navigating their way through their mother's funeral, dutifully marching to Death's drumbeat, when the warm embrace of family turns into a seething snake-pit of self-absorbed relatives. As grandparents argue over whether the funeral reception will be a celebration of Marks and Spencer catering packs or a piece of Gothic tragedy, the sisters succumb to their own bad behaviour. Everyone seems to think this funeral is about them.

In this razor-sharp observational piece, Jo and Ida's delicate relationship cracks under the pressure of the family coming to mourn. Events like weddings and funerals force together people with different temperaments, motives, and backgrounds. In the same family, some might be going up in the world, others going down or side-ways; some resentful of upward mobility, and others embarrassed by their relatives. From the writer of award-winning Brute and critically acclaimed Grotty, The Great Ruckus gives a modern twist on the social satire and dynastic dynamics of Thackeray and Dickens.

Artwork by Izzy Tennyson

Ahead of the 2023 Edinburgh Fringe I spoke with Izzy about the show.

What inspired you to write The Great Ruckus?
In fact, since writing my last play ‘Grotty’ I have been screenwriting, and ‘The Great Ruckus’ started life as a pilot and pitch for an idea for an original TV series called ‘Seven’ following the seven stages of grief.
But I have really been keen to write for theatre again, and when I was thinking of ideas for a play this one really stood out as something that would make a great Fringe show, especially the way that it was a ‘day in a life story’ with a clear beginning, middle and end. And so ‘The Great Ruckus’ was born!
My mother did die ten years ago, and her funeral did provide some source material, though the characters are more imagined than real. My family like all families can be badly behaved but are nothing like as badly behaved as the characters in this piece!
This meant that I was writing about something that I knew about and had experienced but was far enough in the past that I could refine and craft it as a piece of theatre.
I was also inspired by satire of the past. Thackery in books like ‘Vanity Fair’ and even Dickens had such rich characters and I think wrote so much better sometimes about things like families and the nuances of social class, than we often do now.
How did you approach writing the piece?

As I said ‘The Great Ruckus’ started life as a TV script, so I had that to work with which provided me with a lot of source material. Though saying that ‘The Great Ruckus’ is a very significant re-write because there are things you can do in theatre that you can’t do on TV and vice-versa.
A lot of the dialogues and monologues in all my scripts and plays come from just listening and observing people. Real life often provides you with far richer material than making it up! And a lot of my writing process starts there.
I was lucky enough in my last play ‘Grotty’ to get a lot of help from the Dramaturg at Soho Theatre, Adam Brace who was a brilliant writer himself. Adam really tragically passed away just a few months ago, which I am really sad about. I learnt so much about how to structure a play for theatre by working with him, and got to practice that in my screenwriting, where plotting and pace are so important. It is so sad that Adam will not be up at the Edinburgh Festival, I don’t think it will be the same place without him.
What I am really pleased about with this script as we start to put it into rehearsal is that it has fast pace, and has changes of pace, and many scenes are different from each other, capturing different moods and giving the audience many twists and turns, including taking them into some unexpected places.

Artwork by Izzy Tennyson

You’re combining the performance with hand drawn imagery by yourself, how are you blending both together?
In the past the style of my writing has been compared to Hunter Thompson’s ‘Fear and Loathing’ books, which of course are illustrated by the cartoonist Ralph Steadman. I have always loved Steadman’s cartoons and those of Ronald Searle who did the original St. Trinian cartoons. Although my previous play ‘Grotty’ was semi-autobiographical, I found myself making the characters larger than life. I did not want to base the characters in ‘The Great Ruckus’ on own my family members, so I wanted to take this a step further and create fantastical, imagined and extreme characters to really make this a piece of satire. So, turning them into grotesque Ralph Steadman-esque cartoons seemed a great option!
There is also a practical side to using projected drawings and art. As this is just a Fringe Show performed by two actresses multi-rolling several characters each with minimal set, the art should help to identify the characters they are performing more clearly as they switch roles, and different scenes and settings.
The two ideas kind of snowballed together, as I rewrote the script to fit the characters that I was creating in cartoons, while developing ideas for characters inspired new ideas on how to depict the characters in drawings.
I am lucky enough to have two very talented collaborators in the artwork, Elle Tennyson and Grace Chilton who have two different illustrative styles! Which will be visually very exciting to watch. 
Was it a challenge centring the show around death and making something that will still make audiences laugh?
What I say about ‘The Great Ruckus’ is that life does not stop being funny because someone has died, anymore than it stops being serious when you laugh. 
I personally don’t like to classify my plays as comedies or dramas. My previous plays ‘Brute’ and ‘Grotty’ have both been plays people found very funny, even though ‘Brute’ dealt with serious themes like female violence and bullying, and ‘Grotty’ with sexual identity and mental health.
I think if you have comedy people will come to a show and enjoy it, but not only does that get people to come and watch it that otherwise wouldn’t, but it also contrasts more strongly the serious side when you deal with it and takes them on a more complete emotional journey.
‘The Great Ruckus’ is partly about funerals and partly about families. Let’s face it some aspects of funerals can be pretty absurd, everyone has different ideas about what they should be doing or not doing, and can be one of those family car crash events that are intrinsically funny.
What do you want an audience member to take away from seeing the show?
As first and foremost a writer, I designed the piece as a showcase for my writing, so I hope people come and experience good writing. But my partner in this project Grace Chilton is a great actress and I hope people can come and see a great play, with great acting and great artwork!
‘The Great Ruckus’ has its serious side too. The two sisters are very different, Jo is ambitious and sees all her plans threatened, Ida is more spiritual and influenced by signs and dreams. Together they represent the two sides of grief, the practical loss and what happens to your unconscious mind as it tries to make sense of it.
I hope their journey helps the audience understand at an emotional level some of the experience of loss and grief. 
What performances/shows have inspired you?
Because of COVID it has unfortunately been too long since I have seen a lot of theatre, but I have been to the Fringe many times and used to go to the theatre in London a lot. 
Among some inspirational shows I have seen include Jack Thorne’s ‘Stacey’ which also combined projections to tell its story though in a very different way and a production of Clockwork Orange I saw several years ago for its sheer theatricality.
As well as theatre, as a screenwriter I am also a film buff, and you might just notice a few ‘notes’ in the performance that nod in the direction of the film ‘Sweet Charity’, Wes Anderson’s films and my love of Japanese horror!
Can you describe the show in 3 words?
Twisty dark comedy.

The Great Ruckus plays at Pleasance Courtyard (Baby Grand) from 2nd to 28th August (not 14th) at 2pm. Tickets are available from

Izzy Tennyson

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