The sad woman in the attic: Hornsey playwright dramatises approaching 60

Debra Baker stars as Gloria in Victoria Willing's SAD at the Clapham Omnibus Theatre

Debra Baker stars as Gloria in Victoria Willing's SAD at the Clapham Omnibus Theatre - Credit: Supplied

Victoria Willing's dark comedy Sad sees a David Bowie fan barricade herself into the attic with her favourite tunes, after cooking the turkey that kills her mother.

The Hornsey resident's previous play Spring Offensive garnered five-star reviews and was nominated for a stage debut award "despite my being over 60". But she laughs that her very first writing attempt starred Martin Kemp of Spandau Ballet.

Growing up in Camden Town, the Camden School for Girls pupil enrolled at the Anna Scher Theatre school alongside the likes of Kemp and Phil Daniels.

Hornsey playwright Victoria Willing grew up in Camden Town

Hornsey playwright Victoria Willing grew up in Camden Town - Credit: Supplied

"You went to a hall on an Islington council estate and handed over your 10 pence," she says. "Ray Winstone and Pauline Quirke were in the serious Friday group but we were in the Wednesday group. I was a bit of a posh Camden girl, but it was very accessible and unstuffy and we'd sit in a circle and try things out. I wrote a silly play when I was 14 and Martin played a thief called Fingers Kemp."

Willing enjoyed a creative upbringing - her mother is Hampstead-based artist Paula Rego and her father the painter Victor Willing. "Other children's parents weren't that similar to mine," she says.

But their Albert Street neighbour Beryl Bainbridge made them seem almost conventional.

"I was friends with her daughter. Their house was very bohemian with a stuffed rhinoceros in the entrance hall. Beryl was quite scary she used to write all night and sleep all day so was always in bed."

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A music fan, she hung out at Sound 84 record store, and saw Bob Marley at the Rainbow in Finsbury Park or The Stranglers at The Roundhouse. Deciding not to follow her parents into art, she became an actor and puppeteer - her work ranging from The Muppets to the Inbetweeners.

"Art wasn't something I was that interested in. I knew it completely obsessed them. It was their lives - my parents didn't have a lot of money and at one point mum turfed me and my sister out to use the top floor as her studio. Growing up in such a creative environment you can't help absorbing that. They didn't necessarily want us to be artists - 70s parents didn't get that involved in what their children were doing - it wasn't neglectful, they just let us get on with it."

After an MA in stage writing at Central School, Willing began writing short pieces, then longer plays, often featuring humour.

Debra Baker and Lucas Hare in rehearsal for SAD

Debra Baker and Lucas Hare in rehearsal for SAD - Credit: Eleanor Grice

"Everything I've written is a comedy even if I don't mean it to be. This is a funny play but with sinister sides about the vulnerable position and exploitation of older women."

Gloria's flight from the world perhaps echoes her mother barricading herself into her studio.

"I have a memory of sitting outside crying to be let in. She knew we were safe - there were au pairs and my grandmother around - and said: 'I will come out when it's 6 o clock'. Maybe that carries with you, that thing of being shut out. While this woman shuts herself in and won't come out."

Lonely, isolated Gloria encapsulates "every emotion of a woman on the verge of 60". Although not inspired by the pandemic, Willing identified with the feeling of "wanting to run away to the attic and never come out."

"The world had been feeling strange plus there's that sudden realisation that you are going into that older bit, beyond middle age. I'm trying to put something out there about what it feels like to be older. There aren't many plays with a complex, funny, passionate rock and roll loving 60 year old woman centre stage."

Kevin N Golding and Lucas Hare in rehearsal for SAD

Kevin N Golding and Lucas Hare in rehearsal for SAD - Credit: Eleanor Grice

Gloria's husband has to look after her, bring her food and empty the bucket, "there's no toilet up there," while she goes back over her life via musical memories from Steely Dan, X Ray Specs, and of course Bowie.

"It shows the volatility and extremes of relationships that can be terrible, almost violent in their conflict and completely intimate and loving. It's an extreme mad experience of complete withdrawal from the world to find some sort of inner freedom.

She adds: "I love putting music in scenes and Gloria lives out her fantasy world to the sound of music. As she withdraws into her head it becomes dreamlike, unreal.

"Older women are so under rated ignored and forgotten, but we are bloody relevant and full of anger. There's a sentimental pathos around grannies, but actually you are the same person just 40 years older. You still have those same feelings as when you were in the front row at The Bob Marley concert. That moment still feels fresh to me, not as if it was from another life, before I became this person wearing cardigans. But the fluidity of time keeps going and suddenly you don't understand the world and the world doesn't understand you."

Sad runs at Clapham's Omnibus Theatre from April 5-30. Visit www.omnibus-clapham.org/sad/

David Bowie in 2002

David Bowie in 2002 - Credit: PA