Bruntwood script prize won by ex-legal assistant

Chief judge Simon Stephens said the judges were unanimous in their decision

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A former legal assistant in the City who turned her back on the corporate world to become a writer has won one of the UK's leading scriptwriting awards.

Janice Okoh's script for Three Birds, a play about three young siblings who are left home alone, has won the £16,000 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting.

Playwright Simon Stephens, who chaired the judging panel, praised its "humanity and imagination".

Stephens made the announcement at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester.

Okoh will now develop the play with the theatre, with a view to staging a full production.

The theatre will also work with Alistair McDowall, Gareth Farr and Louise Monaghan, who received secondary judges' awards of £8,000 each.

Organisers said all four playwrights examined what it is like to grow up in Britain today. "It was a range that was reflective of the creative energy in this country and the moment," Stephens said.

Okoh, from south-east London, worked in the City for seven years before taking an MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia. She has written three plays for BBC Radio 4 and teaches English as a foreign language.

"I decided I wasn't happy in law, even though I loved the life," she said. "I was doing [writing] courses and got into this radio thing, and from there I got into theatre and thought 'I could write a play.'"

Previous Bruntwood Prize winners include former schoolteacher Vivienne Franzmann, whose play Mogadishu was staged at the Royal Exchange earlier this year before transferring to the Lyric Hammersmith in London.

It has since earned nominations at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards and the Theatre Awards UK.

The prize is open to writers with any level of experience.

Michael Oglesby of property company Bruntwood, who was also on the judging panel, said "We are delighted to have been the catalyst for such a wonderful variety of creative writing.

He added: "In these harsh economic times it is essential that companies provide the stimulus and support for the arts."

The ceremony was held as the Royal Exchange announced details of its spring and summer 2012 season, including a new adaptation of Alan Sillitoe's seminal 1958 novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Maxine Peake starring in August Strindberg's Miss Julie.

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