Sun, Mar 01, 2009 - Page 14 News List

SUNDAY PROFILE: Here she goes again

Catherine Johnson wrote ‘Mamma Mia!’ Now she’s back — with another story about a wedding

By Lyn Gardner  /  THE GUARDIAN , BRISTOL, ENGLAND

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Catherine Johnson is downing an energy drink that promises to provide “energy, stamina, focus and drive.” But does she really need any more? The playwright based in Bristol, southwest England, went from being a tearaway teenager, expelled from school after a stand-off with the headmaster over a revealing top, to the author of Mamma Mia!, one of the most successful musicals ever. Johnson also wrote the screenplay for the film version, which became the highest-grossing British movie of all time.

It’s a career trajectory most writers could only dream of. Yet Johnson, 51, with a glossy, chestnut bob and a warm, open manner, says she still sometimes gets out of bed feeling like a failure. “Every time I start a new work, I feel a complete lack of confidence,” she says. “It must be because I’ve had less years of being a success than I had of being a failure. For a lot of my life, I felt a complete letdown.”

Johnson left school with little to sustain her but poor exam results and a love of writing that had been encouraged by weekly visits, with her father, to the Bristol Old Vic theater. For years, it seemed that success as a writer was beyond her grasp. “Writing was the only thing I was good at,” she says, “but I also wanted to hang out with the bad boys. I had a good few years when I ran away from things and sometimes life ran away from me.” An early marriage ended in divorce; when another relationship broke up, she found herself a single mother in her 30s, barely able to afford nappies.

She was considering training to be a probation officer when another trip to the Bristol Old Vic — to see Jim Cartwright’s 1980s play Road, about northern English working-class life — changed her life. “I suddenly realized I could write about people like me, living real, messy lives,” says Johnson. She rushed home and, within two weeks, had written Rag Doll, a play about child abuse in a local family. It won an award and went on to be a success at London’s Bush theater. Other successes at the Bush followed. Then, in 1997, the playwright and director Terry Johnson, her sometime mentor, heard about a proposed musical based around the songs of Abba — and recommended Johnson to the show’s producer, Judy Craymer. Mamma Mia! was born.

Now Johnson’s back where it all started — at the Bristol Old Vic’s studio space, with a new play, Suspension, about a girl who is about to get married wondering if her special day can possibly be complete without the presence of her father, with whom she has never had any contact. The plot will sound familiar to the millions who’ve seen Mamma Mia!. But Suspension is rooted firmly in Bristol, where Johnson has lived all her adult life. Like many there, she was hit hard by the sudden closure of the Bristol Old Vic in summer 2007 — an act that put the future of the UK’s longest continuously producing theater in jeopardy (the main theater remains closed, awaiting major redevelopment).

“I was really emotional about it,” she says, “so when [board chairman] Dick Penny asked if I’d write a play for the theater, I said ‘yes.’ I was walking back over Clifton suspension bridge after meeting with him, and the play just popped into my head. From the bridge, you can see the Avon Gorge hotel, which is a popular venue for weddings; and I remembered that there had been a protest by aggrieved divorced dads on the bridge. Somehow the two came together. I wrote it quickly — as if I had a rocket up my ass.”

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