He was working as a waiter in a café in Australia when Southsea playwright Ben Aitken got the idea for his latest production.
‘The guy who owned and managed the café used to be in the Lebanese army and he’d transferred the skill set he had as general in the army to being the manager of a café,’ says 28-year-old Ben.
‘It was a horrific experience. We had a Sri Lankan kitchen porter who had a PhD in molecular biology and our manager treated him terribly.
‘I thought the politics and the inherent drama in this working environment would make a good basis for a play,’ continues Ben, who also works as a carer for a man suffering with cerebral palsy.
The Café has gone on to enjoy a sell-out run in London ending tonight. The Stage called it ‘bitter sweet social observation’ and said ‘the direction matches the sparkle of his script’. Fringe Guru, meanwhile, advised that ‘Aitken is one to watch’.
‘Time Out gave The Café one star less than The Book of Mormon. Our tickets our £367 cheaper,’ laughs Ben who grew-up in Purbrook.
The son of a carpenter and a teacher, Ben studied at Purbrook Park and South Downs College before leaving home to take literature at Royal Holloway, University of London, then doing his Masters in Manchester.
It was in Manchester that Ben wrote his first play, J and C. ‘It’s about a tax man who falls in love with a gravedigger,’ explains Ben. ‘I wrote it two or three years ago, when I should have been writing my Masters dissertation.
‘I was in the process of applying for a PhD, but I didn’t like the idea of committing myself to one thesis, one computer, one city for three years. So, I responded to the University Drama Festival’s call for scripts instead,’ adds Ben, who likes to take regular extended holidays to travel the world.
‘Writing plays is much more animated than just sitting in front of a computer screen. It’s more lively than the academic environment. There are more people involved and the rehearsal period is really exciting,’ he adds.
After writing down his ideas for The Café on scraps of paper and his order pad, while at work in the Adelaide café, Ben turned it into ‘an uncontrollable 150-page draft’ when he returned home to Southsea. Then it sat in a drawer for nine months.
‘I think what roused me to think about it again was that I started renting the attic space above Wordsouth book shop in Havant,’ Ben remembers.
‘It’s closed now, but, as soon as I had an office that I was obliged to pay for, I felt compelled to work and, two months later, it was done.’
The political comedy enjoyed a sell-out run at the Brighton Fringe last May. Then Ben redrafted it and headhunted a new director and a new cast to take it to London.
‘I sent the script to a number of theatres and several expressed an interest and arranged meetings with me. But very few theatres will invest money in plays,’ Ben explains.
‘Many of them are willing to host the production, but the onus is on the producer or production company to come up with the money and deliver the product.
‘I looked at staging it at Old Red Lion in Islington, but they wanted £1,500 a week. So, I found a café nearby that was willing to host it free.’
Not only did The Coffee Works Project, in Angel, agree to Ben taking over their premises for nearly three weeks, but the setting made for a lively and exciting site-specific production.
‘And, because we put it on in association with the theatre, the Old Red Lion advocated it, marketed it and gave it their seal of approval,’ beams Ben.
The director, Josh Roche, and cast also gave their time free and Ben has been at almost every performance working as front-of-house.
‘Other than my step-brother’s wedding in Hayling Island last weekend, I’ve been at every performance,’ he says. ‘It’s not because I’m precious. I’m collecting tickets, selling popcorn, taking coats. There’s no money in this, so there’s no-one else to do it.’
But it’s been worth all the hard work. Every one of the 15 performances has been a sell-out, with audience and critical acclaim. Even Hollywood star Dominic Cooper, from Mamma Mia! and The Devil’s Double, came to see The Café.
‘Maybe it was an accident,’ laughs Ben. ‘Maybe he was just coming in for a macchiato. But there seems to be a consensus that what we’re doing is exciting and people are looking forward to what happens next.’
n The Café has been published by Playdead Press and copies can be bought through the publisher or Amazon.
Marcus Dearing is the owner of a struggling seaside café. In a bid to reverse its fortunes, Marcus cuts staff entitlements: no cheese baguettes at lunch; no more tips; shorter breaks.
Lo and behold, austerity breeds contempt, with head waiter Joe, a philosophy graduate who thinks he knows what Marxism is, quick to spit the dummy.
Spurred on by a feisty trialling waitress called Rose (who Joe is desperately keen to impress) the disgruntled protagonist tries to force concessions from Marcus by organising a strike. But his haphazard efforts to unionise a Turk, a Pole, and a single-father with bills to pay ultimately fail, and Joe is left to stew in a difficult mixture of shame, anger and embarrassment.
Joe eventually quits the café, which opens the door for Jimmy, the Polish kitchen porter, to take his place among the café’s front-of-house staff. But who will wash the dishes now?
Ben’s already begun work on his next production.
‘It’s called The Job Centre and I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to stage it in a Job Centre and recruit the cast and crew from those in the dole queue,’ says Ben, who is also hoping to secure some funding from The National Lottery and Arts Council to tour Job Centres with the production.
‘I’ve got to write the script first,’ laughs Ben. ‘But I’m hoping to start this weekend, when The Cafe’s finished,’ he explains.
He also plans to write a travel book this year. It will see him follow in Bill Bryson’s footsteps around Britain to compare Bill’s Notes From A Small Island with his own journey, 25 years later.
Meanwhile, The Café looks set to be reproduced elsewhere in London and Ben hopes to put it on in a café somewhere in Portsmouth too.