Sam Steiner

Breakfast with the rising playwright

Photography Rebecca Need-Menear

It’s early morning in Hoxton, and the playwright, Sam Steiner, locks his bicycle and sits down at a neighbourhood café for breakfast. “It still feels quite weird, this path of writing plays and such,” he says shortly after with a strong latte in hand and a bashful smile. “It seems to be working, though… and this is really lovely, talking to someone who takes interest,” he says, gesturing to me sitting opposite.

Steiner, 29, needn’t be so modest; plenty of people are interested in his work and no doubt more will become acquainted with his name in coming years (although if they don’t, Steiner wouldn’t care: “Notoriety is very much further down the list,” he says of his professional ambitions. “Just happy to keep putting my words into the world.”)

Steiner has already had considerable success in a field where it can take a long time to be noticed. He made an auspicious start at age 21, when, months after finishing University and while working at a local fish and chip shop, he created a surprise Edinburgh Fringe hit with ‘Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons’. The production, which was first performed in 2015, is now playing on London’s West End with Jenna Coleman and Aidan Turner.

“It is surreal to see something you write somewhere like the West End and with that cast,” Steiner says, his eyes widening with emphasise. “It is the work that’s put me on this trajectory and sort of changed everything.”

Lemons’ follows a contemporary couple in the not-too-distant future, where the government has implemented a ‘hush law’ that means humans are limited to uttering 140 words each day. It is at once a Black-Mirror-esque dystopia but also a piece that is at home in the romantic comedy genre.

Following ‘Lemons’ was ‘You Stupid Darkness’, a play that envisaged a world where everyone wears gas masks – the ecological collapse of the planet seemingly imminent. Premiering in 2019, it eerily foreshadowed the tumultuousness of 2020. The play, however, never dwelt on its doomsday premise, opting instead to focus on the volunteers who work at a call centre where they navigate personal problems while trying to comfort strangers. At its essence, it’s a story about optimism, community and kindness, and crucially it also made people laugh. A reviewer for The Guardian summed it up best: “Steiner makes audiences beam as the world burns.”

Jenna Coleman and Aidan Turner in Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons. Photography Johan Persson

The reviewer could have been describing most of Steiner’s work. When I ask why so much of it insists on finding humour and hope in the darkness, Steiner takes a bite of his breakfast, thinks for a little bit, finishes, and smiles.  Then the answers flow quickly and passionately.

“I think people laugh most days. I really do feel that even in the most brutal of circumstances, you can hear great laughter,” he explains. “If we refuse to acknowledge this, it (a piece of work) can feel like it may be trying to communicate a sense of its own self-importance more than something true to the experience of living.” And as for hope? “Well, when horrible things happen, that’s also when humanity can be so good. Look at what we’ve just lived through.”

Steiner is referencing the COVID-19 pandemic, and for the playwright, the mandated time indoors was spent mainly in his East London flat. “I was lucky,” Steiner points out, “I didn’t lose anyone. I was able to keep busy.” Occupied he was, but not on plays. Rather, he got to work on several film projects.  

“I wasn’t writing plays but I did do solid writing for film. I have a theory – when you write a film, you’re writing a series of moments to be captured on record. It feels like you’re writing in the past tense somehow. Memories yet to happen. Whereas theatre is remade every night and so plays should be written in the present tense. So something about that time made it easier to write memories than present moments for me,” Steiner reflects.

His calm disposition (and modesty) once again shine when asked how the industry had responded to his screen projects. A low-key “It’s been good… really good” is an understatement, given the list of Hollywood heavyweights that are attached to Steiner’s projects.

You Stupid Darkness

There is Morning – Steiner’s first feature film – which is set for a 2023 release date and stars Laura Dern, Noah Jupe, Benedict Cumberbatch. The premise, like his plays, is rather dark: it depicts a world where sleep is no longer required thanks to the development of a pill and an artificial sun. The second film, Fingernails, is being produced by Cate Blanchett’s production company and envisages a world where a corporate institute can measure the amount of romantic love between couples. The cast is equally impressive as the former: Jessie Buckley, Jeremy Allen White and Riz Ahmed.

“That shot in Toronto and then there was another film – the first time I’d been on a set actually – which shot in Barcelona. They were shooting for a while at the same time, so it was all a bit like London buses there for a bit,” Steiner says, exuding glimmers of boyish enthusiasm and excitement.

While the world of screenwriting is embracing Steiner – and he admits it has been a fun, collaborative experience – he is adamant he won’t be straying too far from his theatre roots. “I’m working on a play now and it’s so lovely to be back in that headspace,” he says, grinning, “I cannot say too much about it, but it’ll be set in space, on an intergalactic ship.”

Steiner was born in Manchester and attended the University of Warwick, where he studied English and dived into dramatic clubs and societies. “I was initially very much into acting, but I realised I felt satisfied being part of the creative process through playwriting,” he says, adding with a chuckle, “Well that’s what I said when I didn’t always get the parts I wanted. ” Would he ever perform in one of his own plays? “I did that once, it’ll probably be the only time.”

While at University, he met the director-to-be, Ed Madden, who has become a friend and collaborator. “He reads everything I write,” Steiner says, “It’s so important to have that person who knows how your mind works and the intentions you have in your work. Someone who you trust and who is in the trenches with you, so to speak.” The duo are working on a film project together, the draft of which they just finished.

With so many projects on the go, I ask where the steady stream of inspiration comes from. “It can happen anywhere, on the tube, in the pub, or from listening to music, but usually, for me it’s in a conversation with someone,” he pauses and then adds, “I actually love it when that happens, when you’re with someone and you’ve both got an idea at the same time, and you get overwhelmed by its potential. The rest of the writing process is usually an attempt to recapture that one giddy moment.”

Steiner then opens the notes app on his phone, and scrolls through a seemingly endless page. “I keep a lot of these scraps of ideas here – it’s all total nonsense really.” It may be “nonsense” to begin with, but there’s no doubt Steiner is a master of taking the zany – which perhaps isn’t as far-fetched as we would like to think – and running with it. It seems, in a time of increasing uncertainty, that his dramatic worlds of chaos, tempered with hope and laughter, are exactly the types of stories we need.

Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons runs until March 18 at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London