altWriting a serious play about sex trafficking was a difficult task for young graduate Anna Holbek, but with Emma Thompson in her corner she had the chance to spread her wings.

It was Anna Holbek’s first job. Aged 21, straight out of the Italia Conti Academy, she found herself on the set of Pride and Prejudice, teaching Emma Thompson and the rest of the cast a song. In Latin. Suddenly, the lowly gofer was one of the team. Chatting over lunch, Thompson asked Anna if she could possibly rattle up a few of her drama school chums for a photo shoot. They would be dressed as prostitutes for an installation on sex trafficking that Thompson was working on.

As the Latin lesson shows, Holbek is not the type to hide under the duvet when a gauntlet is thrown down, which is how she, and a gang of friends in hotpants, became lifesize cutouts in a container in Trafalgar Square. It was part of The Journey, an art installation that brought the seedy, scary reality of sex slavery into the centre of London.

“Emma said, let’s not just have a load of middle aged people out on a march, that’s what everyone expects. Let’s have people who are 21, full of fire, and can really make a point.”

Once The Journey was over, Holbek was back to reality. “It was September and I didn’t have a job. I wanted to do something, and then it dawned on me that I had learned all about this issue; what an ideal source for writing.” She immediately began meeting with trafficked women to hear their stories.

Thompson read Holbeck’s script, called Fair Trade, and her response could not have been more enthusiastic: “She said, this is f*cking fantastic,” recalls Holbek, who was trying not to be phased by Nanny McPhee swearing like a sailor. “I can’t wait to get started.”

With Thompson on board as executive producer – her first job being to write a cheque for £5,000 to book a theatre and hire the cast – Fair Trade was on its way. “When she came into rehearsals she was gobsmacked by how good it was,” says Holbeck. “She trusted that we would do a good job but I think she breathed a bit of a sigh of relief – it was way beyond what even she expected.”

After the first production, in the Pleasance Theatre, Islington, it was clear that this was a show with legs. The Pleasance were convinced the Edinburgh audience would love it.
Holbek, however, felt everything was moving too fast. She was producing, writing and acting in the show, “something I would never advise anyone to do again”. So she put her hands up and suggested, why not wait a year, make the show really, really good and take it to Edinburgh then.

Everyone involved agreed. It is not as if, they added with heavy hearts, that sex trafficking is going away. So in the run up to the London Olympics, which is predicted to bring a surge of trafficked women, the show that comes to Edinburgh will be, she says “a piece that is inspiring and entertaining, as well as honouring these women’s stories. Somehow we have got to push this issue forward.”

So will we be seeing Thompson at this year’s festival? “She has been our guardian angel, we still have to fill her in on everything that is happening. If she can, she will pop into rehearsals and she will be coming to see the show when she’s back in the country at the end of August.”

Emma Thompson Presents: Fair Trade, Pleasance King Dome, 4-30 August (not 16, 23), 3.30pm, From £6, Tel: 0131 556 6550

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