Jessica Butcher and Anoushka Lucas on Sparks and taking control of writing women

Singer, multi-instrumentalist and composer Anoushka Lucas and actor and playwright Jessica Butcher,

Singer, multi-instrumentalist and composer Anoushka Lucas and actor and playwright Jessica Butcher, whose new play Sparks debuts at VAULT festival - Credit: Archant

The Hackney and Dalston based actor and musician talk to Zoe Paskett about a new musical starring a young woman navigating through a messy, complicated and relatable life

It was only a matter of time before women decided that, actually, we didn’t want to be forced into arbitrary boxes that defined us by one characteristic.

While people from across industries come together to call Time’s Up on injustice against women, you don’t see much immediate change. It turns out it takes a while to overturn thousands of years of inequality. The idea that women can be more than one thing still seems to be a concept too hard for some to grasp.

“We’ve gone to so many auditions where they’ve said: ‘we just want you to be really sexy, and if you’re not sexy, can you just be intelligent?’” says actor Jessica Butcher.

“You think, the actors that you know: sexy and intelligent. The women that you know: sexy and intelligent,” adds musician Anoushka Lucas.

Hackney-based Jessica’s debut play, Sparks, is soon to run at VAULT Festival. She met Anoushka (who lives in Dalston) while writing it and, after initially bonding over a love of Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, they decided to work together.

As an actor, Jessica is known for her role as Lucy Fuller in Camilla Whitehall’s Where Do Little Birds Go and her recent performance at Edinburgh Fringe in Offside (written by poets Sabrina Mahfouz and Hollie McNish).

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Sparks, directed by Jessica Edwards, follows a young woman called Lila as she navigates her way through life. Unlike many of the women we see on TV, in film and on the stage, she has more than one facet to her personality – like actual women.

“She can be sexy, she can be intelligent, she can be stupid, she can be nice, she can be really f***ing horrible,” says Jessica. “And that’s what spurred me to writing it. I just thought, I can’t sit in another audition room and do this. I thought I’d have to stop acting.”

But fringe theatre has always offered an alternative approach and can be the first wave in knocking down these stereotypes. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag began as a one woman show, and plays such as Milly Thomas’ Dust, Gutted by Liz Richardson and 2 Become 1 from Swipe Right Theatre have proved that you get better stories when women write their own.

Sparks is a musical of sorts, though perhaps not in the way you have seen before.

“There’s a tie between music and honesty,” says Anoushka. “The character that Jess has written is really struggling to be honest with herself about what she wants and who she is and how she’s feeling and there’s lots of self deception. There are little bursts of songs that are either a reflection of the lie she’s telling, or more often than not, a much more honest version of what she’s telling you.”

Anoushka has created an original score for the play, which she performs live on stage alongside Jessica. As a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, she has been championed by Jazz FM and Radio 2 and recommended by Jamie Cullum and Neil Cowley. Her composition for Sparks is a fundamental thread that winds throughout the play.

“One of the main reasons I focus on music is because it gives you more agency,” she says. “If I’m on the creative team, I get listened to and that makes me feel better than if I go into a room where everyone else has more power and you’re just someone’s love interest, or a prostitute.”

“That’s why I started writing,” Jessica adds.

Sparks, a title with multiple meanings that play on various ideas of connection, is packed full of so much, it’s difficult to know how to talk about it without ruining the plot (a feat the pair struggle with themselves when describing it to me). Alongside the main themes of love and heartbreak and working out how to steer yourself through life while maintaining a sense of who you are, came something else important to Jessica.

“I wanted to talk about grief and a really messy grief,” she says. “Grief is one of the most messy, surprising, weird things and what I’m astounded by is that not many people talk about it. I’ve become better at saying it, but going: ‘Today I’m quite sad’, or ‘I feel really angry and I don’t know why’. And she’s experiencing all of that. Everybody at some point, whether we like it or not, will encounter grief. It’s a fact of life, watching people die.”

While the character and play are not autobiographical, she has drawn on her own experience of losing her mother to Multiple Sclerosis to talk about how this affects Lila’s view of the world and her relationship with herself.

“She questions what it means to be a mother. She goes on a walk and sees all these amazing mums, and thinks about whether she believes in it and whether she could do it. I’ve spoken to lots of woman who look at expectant mothers and women with kids and think, how are you doing that? How have you got your life together that you can look after a child? That is all there in the loss of her mother as well and not having that.”

Anoushka adds: “This character’s body has become a functional female body as her mother’s body was disintegrating. There’s a real headf**k, a discomfort that she has this body, so she wants her body to be the perfect version of what her mother would have wanted.”

But next to the grief and pain is humour and optimism, letting go of damage and deciding to rebuild.

Writing, composing and starring in a new play may seem like enough for some people to be getting on with, but Anoushka is gearing up to releasing a single on February 2 (Water Under The Bridge, a follow up to the successful Dark Soul) and Jessica has another play showing at VAULT Festival. Boots, written with Sacha Voit and starring Tanya Loretta Dee who Jessica worked with in Offside, is a “funny, heartbreaking adventure through forests, friendship and FemFresh that reveals the loneliness of age and the power of Mother Nature”.

It all just goes to prove that wonderful things happen when women work together.

Sparks runs February 21-25; Boots runs March 7-11. Tickets: £11.50 from

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