Don’t Open the Door: class act
Richard Roques’ latest play is a short but powerful tale of two strangers thrown together. Jane Clinton talked to him
29 July, 2021 — By Jane Clinton
A scene from Richard Roques’ Don’t Open the Door
WHEN I last interviewed Richard Roques, it was just days before his play, Short Memory, was about to open.
Then the first lockdown was announced, the play was cancelled, and life as we knew it stopped. During the pandemic, it is estimated the theatre industry lost more than £200million.
Now, 16 months on, Roques is readying himself for the opening, not of Short Memory, but another much smaller-scale production. Don’t Open the Door is a two-hander, one-hour play with no interval.
The publicity for it is intriguing: “Two people thrown together share intimate secrets ranging from rebellion against the colonial administration in Malaya, apartheid South Africa and how to walk down the street in Tottenham.”
The play, says Roques, is about “a confrontation between a frail old liberal white woman and a young working-class black man.”
The woman can’t quite remember what happened. The man says she let him in and that he has called an ambulance. She persuades him to phone the emergency services back and tell them not to come. He is about to leave, but she asks him to stay “for a while”.
Don’t Open the Door is “about race and class”, says Islington-based Roques.
“Yes, it’s political, but it is about these two individuals who encounter each other. He is trying to persuade her to change her energy provider. We’ve all had that – it’s a very ordinary situation. The power between them shifts as to who is in danger. You are not sure who is threatening who. It is a thriller and there is a twist.”
Nothing is as it seems and we discover the woman’s own surprising story.
“She has made a tremendous sacrifice,” says Roques. “She was living in apartheid South Africa, and she made a bold and radical stand and had an affair with a black man 50 years before the play takes place.”
Roques recalls his own experiences with the anti-apartheid movement in London.
“I was very involved in the anti-apartheid picketing outside the South African embassy in the 1980s. I was pretty much a full-time campaigner and was arrested around 25 times.” (He also made the front cover of Newsweek magazine when he was arrested during the poll tax riots in 1990.)
“So I suppose I was looking back on that.”
But he insists the play is “not a play about apartheid”.
He adds: “It is simply two people and they talk about these things and it becomes relevant.”
Don’t Open the Door won the 2006 Windsor Fringe Festival First Prize with judge Fay Weldon commending it as “shrewdly written with real understanding and humour”.
Roques has always wanted to put the play on and direct it himself and this seems like the perfect vehicle for audiences just emerging from lockdown.
During lockdown, with theatres closed, Roques, who has written nine full-length plays for the theatre and a number of short stories and radio plays, had to adapt his other line of work: walking tours.
A guide of 30 years, he reconfigured the walks for Zoom adding film, and was heartened that he had people still keen to go on a virtual tour.
With the extra time on his hands, Roques also put pen to paper to write a “semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel”.
It takes in his time as a young struggling actor in London as he concealed his sexuality. Called Acting Badly, he says it is a wry look at the grind of trying and failing and carrying on.
That resilience and resourcefulness have certainly come in useful for Roques during these past few months.
He admits he has everything crossed for the run of Don’t Open the Door. When people take to their seats at the Waterloo East Theatre it will be a different experience from pre-pandemic days. This theatre is asking people to wear masks and its 100-capacity has been reduced to 50.
He says: “I think it’s about making people feel more comfortable in the environment – less comfortable physically because you have to wear the mask – but more comfortable in terms of how you feel about being in the space.”
But there is always the looming threat of one of their number being “pinged” from the NHS Covid-19 app and sending the production into disarray. But Roques remains philosophical.
“We have got to go in believing 100 per cent that it is taking place and that people will come to see it,” he says. “We are jittery… but excited.”
• Don’t Open the Door runs at Waterloo East Theatre, 3 Brad Street, SE1 8TN from August 3-15. Box office 020 7928 0060 or visit dontopenthedoor.co.uk/
• For information on Richard Roques’s London walks go to www.thehistoryoflondon.com/the-author.html