Bittersweet family drama inspired by true hair tales

Picture by Paul Jackson
Picture by Paul Jackson

Have you ever had a bad hair day?

Let’s face it: pretty much everyone at some point or another has had issues with their hair, whether it involves an out-of-control frizz, an early morning ‘mad scientist’ look or some other strange and hopefully unintentional style.

Cathy Tyson

Cathy Tyson

Most people just struggle through a bad hair day, forget about it and move on, but BBC radio writer Sarah Naomi Lee found a way of transforming a collection of hair-raising tales into a bittersweet comedic drama.

Snakes and Ladders, which stars Band of Gold actress Cathy Tyson, heads for The Hawth, Crawley, on Monday, April 21, and Tuesday, April 22. The production also stars Allyson Ava-Brown, Nicola Blackman and Janet Kumah.

The show is set in a hairdresser’s and is inspired by true stories collected from women in Shae Shae Creations, an Afro hair salon in Brighton.

“The play is about three sisters,” says Sarah, whose premier theatre piece is directed by New York International Festival 2013 Overall Excellence winner Kerri McLean. “When one comes back for the youngest one’s wedding, all these rivalries come out. They seem to be about their hair – because they’ve all got issues with their hair – but then you realise there are all these other things going on, like any family.”

It’s a tale that has strong significance for Sarah.

“I’m mixed race,” she explains. “My dad is Jamaican and my mum is white and my mum could never do anything with my hair. It was quite a big issue when I was growing up.”

During her trips to the hairdresser’s Sarah spoke to other customers and, realising that they all had interesting stories to tell about their hair, she gathered enough material for a booklet. The project was titled Positive Hair Day and reveals a variety of funny and often painful hair-related tales.

“One lady was made to wear a wig by her mum because the mum didn’t like her hair,” says Sarah. “One lady was the only mixed race woman in the deepest Fens in East Anglia so she had a lot of people trying to touch her hair all the time to sort-of see if it was real. One guy was brought up in Newhaven. He was the only mixed race person there so he learned to dreadlock his hair by buying a Bob Marley album from Woolworths and sitting at home with some beeswax.”

It’s a fascinating collection of stories and it just keeps growing.

On Saturday, April 5, people were invited to Crawley Library for the chance to share their hair stories and have them recorded as audio snippets for the production’s remixed soundtrack.

The project has clearly struck a chord with people, gradually moving from the basement of a Brighton hairdresser’s to stages across the UK with film and TV star Cathy Tyson attached to it.

Speaking to the Mid Sussex Times, Cathy says she was attracted to the play by its themes but also by the hair stories, hinting at “similar experiences” from her own past.

The accomplished actress, whose performance in the 1986 film Mona Lisa made her a star at 20, was also intrigued by the story’s emotional depth.

“I thought there’d be a lot to play with when I read the script,” she says, explaining that there are meaty family issues surrounding her character, Amma. “Without giving too much away she has demons and battles with them.”

I ask what attracted Cathy to acting in the first place.

“Being heard attracts me,” she says. “I found my voice doing all the characters that I’d seen in my local area and bringing them onto the stage. I did a lot of improvisation when I first started.”

Although best known for her roles in film and TV, Cathy has had plenty of stage experience, starting with the Everyman Theatre and then the RSC. However, performing live, instead of in front of a camera, still provides its fair share of challenges. The main one, of course, results from the fact that performers can’t do multiple takes on stage.

“There are no cuttings,” Cathy says. “Once you start the play, there’s no stopping and you have to be spontaneous, as well.”

She continues: “Emotionally, it’s challenging because each run that you do, or each rehearsal, you have to wake up every morning and come emotionally prepared. That’s what’s expected of you.”

“It can actually be quite draining,” she adds. “But, in a way, if I’m not drained at the end of the day, especially with this part, I know I’ve not done my job.” She laughs. “You have to go for it.”

It’s a demanding craft and one that Cathy feels merits hard work. When asked about what it was like to receive such positive recognition for her role in Mona Lisa, her response is surprising.

“It was a bit strange because I didn’t feel I deserved it,” she admits. “People treated me with such respect and I didn’t really feel I earned it because I was a craftsperson and I thought, well, it’s my craft, I need to prove it first.”

Feeling somewhat jaded about acting and seeking inspiration, Cathy put her acting career on hold four years ago to become a mature English student at Brunel University.

“I thought: I’ve got to reinvigorate myself and go back to learning and writing,” she explains. “I don’t regret it for a minute. It was great.”

Cathy has an admirably sincere attitude towards her craft and it’s one that should shine through in the bittersweet study of family life that is Snakes and Ladders.

It’s a comedy that seems to require a mature approach, with its hair issues, hidden truths and complex characters. There won’t be any artificial TV ‘cuts’ but there will be audio ‘snippets’ from real people, suggesting that audiences can expect a truthful and heartfelt production.

Call the box office on 01293 553636.

By Lawrence Smith