Credit Studio 57 Productions Limited

Theatre meets 90s House: On Better Days by Ben Tagoe

By Jeevan Farthing

The Scottish screenwriter talks to The Glasgow Guardian about his upcoming play Better Days, and club culture past and present.

Ben Tagoe was a teenager when the title track to his one-person show, Better Days, was released. Featuring a raft of classic early 90s rave tunes, his crowdfunded production tells the story of Danny, a 19-year-old in 1990, who grapples with the intersection of two subcultures: football hooliganism and the house music scene. The first draft took only two to three months (“this was from the heart”), but as the hard work of refining and perfecting the play carries on until its first performance at the end of February, Ben emphasises his gratitude for being able to draw on “such talented people”, including George Martin, the 23-year old actor from East Yorkshire.

“I’ve always felt like I missed out on something”, George says in the press release for Better Days. His excitement stems in part from the opportunity to “experience what [the house music scene] was like”, and Ben says that he is “trying to take people back to that time. It’s why the play is a hybrid between a night out and going to the theatre. I want to invoke memories and allow people to have that shared experience while hearing a story that’s personal to a lot of people from that time and has a universal quality.” 

Is it possible to yearn authentically for something you’ve never experienced? There are certainly two audiences which Better Days caters for, and an immersive performance seems like the perfect medium to bridge the intergenerational divide between those who grew up in the 90s, and those who were born too late. Both generations benefit from the preservation of club music without the constraints of the night-time economy – as Better Days is doing – whether that be the growing rate of young people going sober, as well as the recent surge in day raves (see the transition of iconic LGBTQ+ night Duckie to Saturday afternoons or Annie Mac’s Before Midnight events). Ben said to me that the experience “is not so much about getting off your face or drunk anymore, but people still want to enjoy the music. That’s why the show will predominantly be a standing gig: most people I’ve spoken to want to be on their feet. A lot of it is about the story, but when the tune plays for a minute, they want to move. It’s about creating a night where you don’t have to feel like death the next day, while still evoking that sense of atmosphere.”

On the other hand, Glasgow’s hardcore scene is thriving, with nights such as Bloodsport and Fast Muzik selling out every time, and I note to Ben that our political climate – a fatigued Tory government resorting to public order legislation – is strikingly similar to that of the 90s: “I can definitely see the parallels. It does feel like we’re coming through a period of disaffection among young people, with the movement against climate change and politics generally. That disaffection in the 90s generated a big youth movement – it was a quiet and subversive rebellion because young people were looking for a different outlet”. In the context of surging y2k fashion, “it feels like the 90s is becoming something that lots of young people are interested in. I guess they are wanting to find a sense of community like we did”.

Ben’s mention of community is interesting: a 90s renaissance would be taking place in the digital age. Social media platforms may help people to connect, but they cannot meaningfully create communities that aren’t fragmented from one another because – unlike the egalitarian anonymity of the nightclub – they are necessarily driven by identity. Writing for VICE, Chiara Wilkinson notes the risks of smartphone cameras at raves, and Ben is encouraged by clubs such as The Berkeley Suite in Glasgow, who are adopting a no phones on the dancefloor policy. “The whole phone debate is interesting: everybody moans about it, but everybody does it. I was at an outdoor party over the summer which banned phones, and on nights like these when people are dancing intensely, people haven’t given their consent to be filmed. It really changes the vibe.”

What’s more, the austerity policies of successive Tory governments makes it harder for anti-government sentiment to manifest in club culture: the UK lost one-quarter of its nightclubs between 2011 and 2021. The Labour MP Lisa Nandy was ridiculed for positing that towns could be levelled up by reopening night clubs, but as the Member of Parliament for the seat once home to Wigan Casino, she would know the sense of identity Northern Soul and other dance movements gave to small towns. An investigation by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Night-Time Economy also found that for every £10 spent in a live music venue, a further £17 is spent outside the venue. A renaissance in club culture generally wouldn’t just be regenerative, but redistributive.

Ben is now based in West Yorkshire, which I point out is one of the targets of the government’s supposed levelling up agenda. “I do think things have improved slightly with this whole zoom culture. I don’t have to go down to London and back so much, although the arts and the media are still very London-centric. More needs to be done to create government-funded hubs of talent in the different regions and countries of the United Kingdom, and I make that distinction between regions and countries very carefully.” 

Of course, he would: Ben grew up in Perth, and I ask whether his Scottish upbringing gives him a unique perspective on the house music movement. “The story is deliberately not set anywhere specific, because coming out of the difficulties of the 80s was a universal experience. What has been interesting about the Scottish aspect, though, is reconnecting with the DJs and promoters I was familiar with when growing up. I was messaging Kelvin Andrews yesterday, who used to come to the Rumba Club in Tayside. We talked about how the energy at Scottish gigs is different, and that people in Scotland do know how to have a party. This is something I’m definitely very proud of.” In conversation with Matt Anniss, Matthew Colin points out that “there are two books focusing exclusively on the Hacienda in Manchester… but no [or certainly very few] books about dance music culture in Scotland or Wales.” It would be remiss of The Glasgow Guardian to not suggest there remains a gap in our cultural palette.

Nevertheless, having already spent a few years on Coronation Street, and written for Idris Elba, James Nesbitt and Dougray Scott, Ben’s talent is being utilised on other projects. “The big thing now, my next career goal, is getting my own original TV series on screen. I’m really pleased with how things have gone so far, but I’d love to be the lead writer of my own show. I’m currently adapting a version of Graeme Armstrong’s The Young Team, and the aim is getting that across to a TV production.” While Ben says “it’s amazing working on TV shows, knowing that millions of people are watching your work, writing a story that’s personal, like Better Days, and connecting with people right there in front of you, is definitely the most enjoyable.” 

Better Days comes to Websters Theatre in Glasgow on 8 March. Tickets here.


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