A fancy members’ club in Soho is a far cry from The Yard Theatre in Hackney Wick, so joining a select group for a preview of new E4 series Chewing Gum, adapted from a play first shown at the Yard, I felt a little out of my comfort zone.
“It’s like we’re royalty,” whispered someone, as we were led into a private cinema, free drinks in hand. That someone sounded not dissimilar to Micheala Coel, the series’ writer and star, who was due to answer questions afterwards.
Named one of the six best young playwrights in the UK by WhatsOnStage, Coel’s career began when she wrote and starred in a semi-autobiographical monologue called Chewing Gum Dreams that in 2013 became the Yard’s first play to be transferred to the National.
That play, about life on an East London estate, has been snapped up by E4 and has since morphed into a six-part coming-of-age comedy about a young woman who really should have come of age already.
“The play goes from extreme laughter to tears, but this is a comedy so I had to make a completely different show,” explains 26-year-old Coel.
In the play Coel’s character, Tracey Gordon, was a sharp-tongued 14-year-old living on an estate in Tower Hamlets with much charm and potential but few expectations. But the Tracey we meet in the series is now 24 and facing a different set of dilemmas.
Tracey’s religion is holding her back from gaining life experience; she lives in a strict Christian household with a sister whose idea of fun is to stay at home and play Ludo. Tracey seems to have missed out on the teenage kicks part of growing up – but is determined to make up for lost time.
A slightly embarrassed Coel describes the two episodes shown as “sex central”, an accurate enough description, though she later stresses that the show tackles the world of work, drugs, family life and relationships too.
As far as the sex goes though, there’s everything from a threesome to nose-licking, and a fair few other things besides. Tracey’s first port of call in her quest is to Google the word ‘sex’, but what she learns from the internet doesn’t stack up in the real world. “My face is not to be sat on,” her celibate boyfriend tells her brusquely, while her best friend Candice’s dating advice to “channel your inner slut”, proves similarly disastrous.
In a similar way to Lena Dunham’s Girls, sex is present as a fact of growing up rather than as something to titillate the viewer. In that programme, and in Chewing Gum too, the relationship between on screen characters and their real life equivalents isn’t exactly clear. Are Coel’s characters based on people she knows and, more pointedly, is Tracey based on her?
“I think everyone is made of a few people I know, including Tracey,” Coel tells journalists at the screening. “It could be if I was on a really long bus journey and somebody was on the phone that they’ve somehow been put into the mixing pot of every character.”
But when we speak later, Coel talks more about the parallels between herself and Tracey.
Chewing Gum is set on an estate in Tower Hamlets, similar to the one where Coel herself grew up.
“It was a strong mix of mainly immigrants,” she says of her upbringing. “Everyone was very poor and as much as our cultures clashed we were wonderfully united by economic circumstances.”
Then as a teenager, Coel, like Tracey, was “wrapped up in cotton wool”. Her mother, she says, was strict and wouldn’t always let her go out.
But instead of going down that well-trodden path of rebellion, Coel ended up devoting herself to the church. Becoming a devout Christian for her meant celibacy and “not talking to guys”, something many hormonal teenagers would never consider. Looking back on that time, Coel recognises that she “put growing up on pause” but on the plus side she sees a lot of positives for her development as an artist.
“I started performing pretty much when I became Christian. I had a big old Pentecostal conversion, was given a bible and I wrote a lot of poetry. I guess that kind of faith can make you do crazy things and that was pretty much the first crazy thing I did was I walked into a bar and I asked if I could read a poem.”
These days Coel is a writer who revels in lampooning religion and who is keen to talk about sex and promote ‘normal’ women’s body images on screen (apparently she wanted nudity in the show but it was vetoed). How did this outspoken writer emerge?
Coel describes her ‘second conversion’ after winning a scholarship to the Guildhall School for Music and Drama. Suddenly she found herself among a cohort of fellow performers who seemed happy without religion.
“I was learning from those people rather than trying to teach them anything. I’d been told all these things about ‘worldly’ people, then got to school and discovered they weren’t true. And also I didn’t really feel any need to tell people that they needed Jesus Christ because I didn’t think they did.”
Whilst her peers were doing their final year shows, Coel opted to go it alone and create her own piece, the 15-minute monologue that was the very first Chewing Gum Dreams. Then after graduating, Coel looked to put it on somewhere. She found the Yard Theatre in Hackney Wick, and applied to be part of their Theatre of Great Britain Festival.
“It was basically build your own set, do your own marketing and do your own producing,” Coel remembers. “So I went all around East London with flyers and Jay Miller who runs The Yard, he’s really amazing with scripts and was really helpful in the way I extended it. He really gave me strong bits of advice so I’m very thankful to him.”
After the rave reviews for Chewing Gum Dreams and a successful transfer to the Shed at the National Theatre, a series was commissioned. Coel had played a part in Top Boy, a very different Channel 4 series about East London estate life, but insists television was “never on my radar”. Clearly now that has changed, and Coel is currently shooting another E4 comedy drama, Aliens – from the producers of Misfits – in which she plays the lead character.
However, Coel certainly won’t turn her back on more stage work. “If the scripts are good then I’ll do the job and it doesn’t matter what kind of thing it is,” she says, sounding every inch like a drama school graduate.
Coel remembers the early days at the Yard, which may seem an age away but they were only three years ago. “I have extremely happy memories of performing there, as stressful as it was,” she says. “When you see people crying their eyes out or laughing and then looking like they’re satisfied. It’s the best, best, best feeling in the world.”
Chewing Gum starts on 6 October at 10pm on E4