Isley Lynn's LEAN premiered at the Tristan Bates Theatre

Two years ago in the bar of Covent Garden’s Tristan Bates Theatre, I stood with my friend ranting admiration about the production we had just seen. Isley Lynn’s debut play LEAN had premiered and was enjoying great acclaim and an extended run. I had been completely enraptured. It had meaning, challenged preconceptions, was honest and presented a relationship I entirely believed in.

Nearby, a young woman was being praised and we realised it must be the playwright herself. After encouragement from my friend, I went over to give congratulations coolly and professionally. What instead transpired was an awkward and fanatical ramble about how much I loved the play. Pride wounded and expecting a bewildered thanks preceding a quick escape, I was instead met by genuine appreciation of my admiration and a modest shyness.

Ice broken, I asked about how she began writing and she told me a bit about her time on the Royal Court Young Writer’s Programme the previous year. She is American-born, now living in London and also writes poetry.

Considering the brilliance of the play I had just seen, I was struck by her humility and sincere interest in my thoughts on the piece. We swapped details and have stayed in touch. As I began directing LEAN at the Corpus Playroom, which will show at the end of January, I could not resist the urge to ask more questions about this provocative play.

LEAN is being put on two years after its premiere at the Tristan Bates. “It’s a relief, honestly,” she tells me. “It sort of proves its initial success wasn’t a fluke! It’s a big thrill to have your work put on in the first place, but when someone else entirely wants to put it on a second time, and so soon after, it’s very flattering.”

We speak about her involvement in rehearsals for the original production (which she tells me is quite common for new writing); I assume it must be strange being largely removed from this process, aside from occasional interrogation by the new director.

“It was its maiden voyage so I wanted to be involved in how it would come into the world. But it’s been quite nice and exciting not being involved this time around, it’s totally different. I’ll just show up on opening night and find out what’s happened! Every time I get an update it’s like a little treat for the day. And of course I’m no longer ‘making’ the show; the show exists already. It’s just getting another incarnation, so it’s much more relaxed and I can enjoy it a bit more.”

The play focuses around Michael, who is anorexic, and his ex-wife Tessa, who moves back in with him upon discovering he has stopped eating again. She says that she won’t eat until he does, but Michael refuses to get involved in Tessa’s game.

Anorexia can be a sensitive topic but Lynn explores it with detailed insight and refreshing frankness. The fact that men are often excluded from conversations surrounding eating disorders makes Lynn’s play particularly distinctive.

“My ex-boyfriend was anorexic and his experience was so different to every other portrayal I’d seen represented in the culture around me, so I wanted more to write about that than write about Anorexia with a capital A,” she tells me. “A lot of the experience of the disorder discussed in the play comes from his direct testimony, and I’ll always be grateful to him for his generosity and support in writing the play.”

I applaud her desire to write about something so important and we go on to discuss the ways in which issues like mental health can be explored in theatre. “All art is an empathy machine; it allows you to see the world through a radically different perspective, and I think live theatre is the most radical form of this – you sit in a dark room and share oxygen with a bunch of strangers while you witness the experiences of people from a totally different world to you, people you might otherwise never come into contact with, be that because of their race, age, background, sexuality or whatever. So I think it’s a great medium to explore any issue.”

The play tackles anorexia, but I experienced so much more than that when I saw it back in 2013. It’s no wonder, because, as Lynn explains, “The disorder provides a poetic and high-stakes context for the characters’ real problem, their painful history. It’s about stubbornness and tough love and desperation and forgiveness and what it means to really love someone so much you’d do anything for them, even if you can’t stand to be in the same room as them. And it’s about something else pretty major, but that’s a surprise...”

With so many hard-hitting, gritty issues and feelings, I imagine that it must have been a tough writing process. “I actually wrote the opening scene for LEAN as part of my Drama BA, and as I didn’t have to finish it I didn’t worry too much about how the rest of the play would function!”, she admits.

“So when I decided it was an important story and I should complete the work, my challenge was making sure all the seeds I’d sown in that first scene came to fruit successfully by the end. It meant the piece was more rich and complex than it might have been otherwise, but it wasn’t easy!”

I tell her about the rich array of theatre that is put on in Cambridge and ask her why she thinks people should come and see LEAN: “I guarantee you’ll look at the world a little differently afterwards. Just a little. You’ll see your family differently, your lovers differently, especially anorexics differently. And one thing I should say is no matter how black the humour is, you’re allowed to laugh. Because it’s funny. I promise.” And she’s right; I remember how hard it was to stifle frequent laughter while watching the original performance.

LEAN has stayed with me, and I took away a new perception of eating disorders and a different consideration of the relationships I have with the people close to me.

“I hope people take away some lessons about how to be kinder to each other, even if you think the other person is being an idiot. Even if they really are being an idiot,” she adds.

“I’d generally like to see more acceptance in the world of people different to ourselves, and if LEAN contributes to that somehow I’ll be very happy. Fingers crossed.”