Shelagh Stephenson

Plays by Shelagh Stephenson

Ancient Lights

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Ancient Lights brings three old friends and their partners and children together for Christmas, whose private lives and public lies furnish a contemporary commentary on identity and integrity.

Tom Cavallero, Hollywood actor, and his girlfriend Iona find that Northumberland in a blizzard isn’t the English pastoral they were expecting. Kitty is tortured by liberal guilt and worries about her journalist husband who is abroad covering a civil war. Bea, the public relations powerhouse, is mourning her perfectly organised Christmas, while her new lover, Tad, is more interested in morbid research for his new novel. The atmosphere is forced and self-conscious, because Iona is filming their every move for her documentary about ‘the real Tom.’ But no one, including Tom, is really sure who that is anymore, and it turns out that even in private film stars have to keep acting.

Stephenson’s funny and pointed play premiered at the Hampstead Theatre in 2000.


Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Enlightenment is a powerful study of the mechanisms of grief, identity and absence.

When Adam disappears overseas, all his mother Lia and step-father Nick have is an email saying that he was thinking of going to Jakarta. The first act is the story of their grief, and their search for meaning or confirmation from a silent world. A vague medium and an invasive television producer do nothing to alleviate their harrowing uncertainty, and their hope that every time the phone rings, it might be Adam calling.

Then a young man appears at the airport, looking uncannily like Adam, with his passport and amnesia in tow. As this version of Adam comes to live with Lia and Nick, the play, at first a delicate study of the psychology of loss, unravels into something dark and raw.

Enlightenment premiered at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin in 2005.

An Experiment With An Air Pump

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

An Experiment With An Air Pump is a daring and thoughtful play with a flurry of ideas and questions about the ethics of knowledge.

The play is inspired by the painting of the same name by Joseph Wright of Derby, and gives a fascinating life to its seven subjects. Their house buzzes with scientific experiments, furtive romances and farcical amateur dramatics. At the centre is Joseph Fenwick, a scientist of the Enlightenment, studying anatomy and the apparently God-like power of vacuums and air pumps.

Living in the house two hundred years later is Ellen, a geneticist working in the ethically-complicated field of foetal diagnostics. Stephenson draws a common thread from their lives as a dark and long buried secret is unearthed in the cellar. An Experiment With An Air Pump premiered at the Royal Exchange Theatre in 1998.

Five Kinds of Silence

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Harrowing and claustrophobic, Five Kinds of Silence describes the sickening abuse inflicted by a father upon his wife and daughters.

Janet and Susan have just shot Billy, their father. The appalling grip he has on their lives means that they can’t quite believe that he is dead, and his ghost haunts the stage spitting sharp poetry and insults and dark delight. Billy’s commentary on his past shows how a pattern of childhood abuse led to him abusing his own family, creating a psychological prison which none of them can escape from. As psychiatrists and detectives interview the sisters and their mother in order to build a case for their defence, they reveal the absolute totality of Billy’s control, punishing the slightest deviation from his exacting household rules with brutal violence and enforcing secrecy with threats of murder and suicide. The play explores the impossible complexity of the feelings of these three women towards Billy, deeply damaged by their life-long suffering.

Adapted from a radio play, the stage version of Five Kinds of Silence was first performed in 2000, at the Lyric Hammersmith, London.

Harriet Martineau Dreams of Dancing

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Harriet Martineau (1802–1876) was a social theorist who is often credited as being the first female sociologist. In Harriet Martineau Dreams of Dancing, Shelagh Stephenson depicts the great writer in a period of convalescence, living as an invalid by the sea in Tynemouth.

Shut off from her usual society, Harriet is visited by women of the locale; Impie, a recent widow who is using her new-found marital freedom to paint murals on the ceilings of her family home; Beulah, the daughter of a woman who’d been sold into slavery and escaped; and Jane, the housemaid, whose unfeted and unexpected gifts lift her out of domestic servitude and could help Harriet out of illness.
Harriet Martineau is a play about female self-reliance in a time of patriarchal dominance. Written by Shelagh Stephenson, it premiered at Live Theatre, Newcastle, in winter 2016.

The Long Road

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

When eighteen-year-old Danny is fatally stabbed in a random attack his family struggles to find meaning and forgiveness. His mother’s determination to understand the atrocity brings her face to face with his killer and forces the family to confront the bitter senselessness of their loss.

The Long Road evolved out of a period of research with prisoners by Synergy Theatre Project, in collaboration with The Forgiveness Project and award-winning playwright Shelagh Stephenson. It premiered at Soho Theatre on 19 May 2008.

Mappa Mundi

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Seventy-year-old Jack is afraid of dying, or perhaps he’s afraid that he hasn’t lived, in this haunting play about memory, guilt and redemption.

While Anna prepares for her wedding, her father Jack is forced to confront the limits of his life. He is given a book on particle physics and suddenly realises how many things he does not know; he weeps when he discovers that the path of his life can be made into a single line on a map.

It is a play constantly in touch with history; Jack collects antique maps and is fascinated by research into the family’s ancestry which connects them to an eighteenth century cartographer and slave owner, though Anna is more interested in the discovery that they may also be descended from a slave. But this line to the past troubles the play, tying Jack to events he’d rather forget.

Mappa Mundi is a quiet and powerful story about trying to accept death, the past and the choices of the people we love. It premiered in 2002 at the Royal National Theatre, London.

The Memory of Water

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Three estranged sisters meet on the eve of their mother’s funeral to argue and misremember in Shelagh Stephenson’s examination of the structures of memory and family.

As they attempt to organise her funeral, their memories of their childhood run together and the secrets of their separate lives are revealed. Theresa, owner of an alternative therapy business, is angry that she was left to care for their dying mother. Mary, a doctor, is still struggling with a deep loss from her past. Catherine seeks attention through a succession of short-term partners.

When the play opened at the Hampstead Theatre, London, in 1996 it was awarded the Olivier Award for Best Comedy. But it is melancholic too, as the emotional bruises of the sisters’ childhood emerge. Memories fade, blur and persist as the sisters bicker, watched over by the ghost of the mother to whom they are preparing to say goodbye.

Picture of Shelagh Stephenson

Shelagh Stephenson was born in Northumberland and read drama at Manchester University. Her first stage play, The Memory of Water, premiered at Hampstead Theatre in 1996 and subsequently transferred to the West End, where it won an Olivier Award for Best Comedy in 2000. Her second play, An Experiment With An Air Pump, opened at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. It was joint recipient of the Peggy Ramsay Award and later transferred to the Hampstead Theatre. Both plays subsequently ran at New York's Manhattan Theatre Club. Her third play, Ancient Lights, was produced at Hampstead Theatre in December 2000.

She has written several radio plays, including the award-winning Five Kinds of Silence, which she adapted for the stage and which was presented at the Lyric, Hammersmith in 2000. Her screen adaptation of The Memory of Water was released in spring 2002 with the title Before You Go.