ARTS : Clare Bayley on a stage soap that mixes nuns, blood and sex

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The Independent Culture
The theatrical soap opera - a form that is all the rage in New York - hits London next week when Blair Fell's Burning Habits opens at the Drill Hall. "I had no idea where I was going when I started to write the first episode," writer-director Blair Fell admits. Now, 14 episodes and 43 characters later, Fell has spawned a monster, a cycle of plays grandly entitled The Nychthemeron, which ran in New York for 10 months. Burning Habits is only the first part of this meisterwerk, a mere eight episodes (two episodes are presented in one night each week for five weeks, with omnibus editions at the weekend), though it introduces us to all 43 outlandishly Gothic characters.

The first New York theatrical soap was Hot Keys, written and presented by performance artist Jeff Weiss. The theme was perversion and the main plot-line was about a father having sex with his son. Each episode lasted at least three hours and started at midnight - it was strictly for the hard-core scene. Other long-runners included Underground Soap, which had a suburban setting but was, says Fell, "really boring", and Cereal, which adopted a Benny Hill style of slapstick comedy and changed every week.

Dissatisfied with these, but intrigued by the form, Fell set about creating Burning Habits with two sources of inspiration. The first was Dark Shadows, an American soap from the 1970s which took the conventional format but was peopled entirely by vampires and witches. The second was his first childhood hero, the Singing Nun.

The obsession with the Church stems from Fell's childhood, when all his friends were Catholics. "Protestants seemed so boring, Catholicism was so dramatic. I wanted to be the Pope when I grew up." In later life he began to perceive the down side of religion. While working for a city council member, he recalls, "I got into an argument with a nun about condom distribution. I said, 'Listen sister, if you fuck without a condom you get Aids.' I was fired."

Fell denies being a soap junkie, but has kept to the basic rules of the form, with only slight modifications. "In Nychthemeron, the overriding evil is the Church, and the force of good are queers. The themes are misery, passion, the Church and blood. Lots of blood." The style is Grand Guignol, high kitsch and not a little camp.

In spite of all the uproariousness of the performance, there is an undercurrent of serious intent, at least in Fell's mind. "There's an element of catharsis. It's more intense because it's live, on stage. You get used to living with the characters, and then ultimately you lose them. There's a lot of death involved."

n 'Burning Habits' opens on 16 May. Box-office: 0171-637 8270