Tom Ratcliffe always planned to take a one-person play to The Edinburgh Fringe, but he never expected it to be quite so early on in his career.  It was events that took place when he was performing at the Fringe in 2017 which inspired him to write Velvet, a play that examines sexual harassment against a young gay man, and with #MeToo gaining attention at the same time, he knew his play, and his story, had to be part of that movement.

“I just wanted to tell my story and share my own experience”

Like many young actors coming out of drama school, Tom has strong ambitions for his career, “I’ve always wanted to write and perform, I went to Oxford School of Drama and graduated in 2015.  I had a great time there, and by chance the school has quite a history of producing brilliant writers.”

Tom’s first play, Circa, which he was writing while still at Drama School, premiered at the Theatre de Meervaart in Amsterdam in 2016, and will come to The Old Red Lion in London this March, “I’ve been working on Circa for so long, so getting this four week run at the Old Red Lion is what I’ve been aiming for, I love that space so much, I’m excited to properly share it with everyone.”

Tom Ratcliffe in Velvet
Tom Ratcliffe in Velvet

But he’s an actor too, and in 2017 he was performing in a show at The Edinburgh Fringe. “It was a highly sexualised play, and there was more than one instance when an audience member who saw the play couldn’t then distinguish between me and the character afterwards.”

Tom started to form the idea of Velvet based on what happened to him during this time, “I just wanted to tell my story and share my own experience, I would call it semi-autobiographical because it has to have a narrative that works for story-telling, my story has, of course, ended differently. But sadly more of Velvet is true than you might think.”

“#MeToo happened just after I started writing Velvet, that made it even more urgent, the play had to happen last year because it had to be part of that story” 

While many audiences in Edinburgh would have assumed Velvet was a response to the high-profile allegations of sexual harassment being made by women against influential figures, the timing was coincidence, “#MeToo happened just after I started writing Velvet, that made it even more urgent, the play had to happen last year because it had to be part of that story.”

But Tom’s story was different to the many other #MeToo inspired shows in Edinburgh last year, “because men are usually perpetrators in this movement, and because there’s this perception that gay men are inherently linked to sex, it’s almost assumed that they want it, so it’s difficult for people to put sexual harassment against a gay man in the same context.”

Following its success in Edinburgh, Velvet will open at VAULT Festival before heading out on tour, but securing the play’s future hasn’t been easy “someone asked me did it work in a festival environment where the ‘more essential female stories were also happening around you?’ But abuse of power isn’t limited to gender, and I didn’t even really think about gender when I was writing it.”

VAULT Festival audiences will see the same show that was in Edinburgh, but Tom accepts there might need to be some tweaks in rehearsal, “It’s a bigger stage at VAULT than in Edinburgh, so I’ll need to figure out how to work in that space.  It runs at a nice time, the story is compact, and I don’t feel like I’ve missed anything, but then there’s always things to improve on.”

There’s more to Velvet though, it takes a look behind the scenes in an industry that most audience members won’t be familiar with, “you can see that in the actor/agent relationship, the way actors are seen in this industry how they are used really, I’m really proud to hold a mirror up to that.”

“I didn’t become a playwright just to write things that weren’t going to challenge people.  What I’ve written about is how this industry is, and people in the industry need to see that.” Tom adds, “also a lot of people have described it as a thriller, and it is, I was a horror geek growing up so this is one for if you like to be kept on the edge of your seat.”

Tom Ratcliffe in Velvet
Tom Ratcliffe in Velvet

Tom also performs in this one-person show, “For me it was never a question, the story is so personal and even down to the minute details that people in the audience might not even get, but I know what they signify.”

It makes sense that Tom should want to tell the story himself, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy thing to do, “The first time I performed Velvet I had never been more nervous in my life, my family were there and they didn’t really know exactly what had happened, and I was scared of the questions they would ask.”

“Also, I didn’t want to offend anyone because my family feature quite heavily in the play.  By the time I got to Edinburgh I had to promote the show, but I was still at the stage when I didn’t really want to talk about what had happened to me.  I didn’t want to be known for that, I wanted this play to be my achievement.”

“Come and see it if you want to see something that will challenge your perspective of everything that’s happened in the last couple of years”

It certainly has been an achievement, picking up plenty of four and five star reviews in its debut run, “I was so happy and relieved. Vindicated isn’t the right word but I did feel quite emotional because I’ve worked so hard on it, and to know people appreciated it really helped.”

Has Velvet helped Tom to heal from his experiences? “I think I partly wrote this play to vent, to take something I was so ashamed of, and turn it in to something positive for my career, taking ownership of that is really rewarding. I don’t know about healing, I think that comes later, now I just want to share my play with as many people as I can, I believe this is something people need to see.”

Tom Ratcliffe in Velvet
Tom Ratcliffe in Velvet

Tom thinks Velvet could be empowering for others in a similar situation too, “they’ve experienced it, but we all know it has been more prevalent against women, so it’s important they know that it matters for them too.”

So why should people choose Velvet at this year’s VAULT Festival “Come and see it if you want to see something that will challenge your perspective of everything that’s happened in the last couple of years, and when I say that I mean because this side of the story, how prevalent it is in gay men, hasn’t been given as much coverage. Everyone who comes to see the play will get it regardless of gender.”

Velvet is at VAULT Festival 30th January to 3rd February 2019.

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Greg is an award-winning writer with a huge passion for theatre. He has appeared on stage, as well as having directed several plays in his native Scotland. Greg is the founder and editor of Theatre Weekly

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