Arts: Come on, feel the farce

Ooh, I say, you'll never guess what. That Terry Johnson says he's come over all lightweight with his latest play. But don't you believe it.

Terry Johnson is a tricky customer. When I last met him six months ago at the National Theatre, where he was rehearsing the Restoration comedy, The London Cuckolds, I was expecting a hard time. He had a reputation for being media unfriendly and hostile. Naturally, he was anything but. "I used to draw a line between drama and showbiz," he explained, "and come down firmly on the side of drama. Now I've started enjoying myself, I reckon there's not much to choose between the two. I'll do anything now, provided I never find myself in the same club as Baz Bamigboye [the showbiz editor of the Daily Mail]."

But now that his new play, Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick, is about to open at the National, Johnson has gone all Garbo. He's not talking to anyone, I'm told, because he wants to let the play speak for itself. Which seems a bit unnecessary. He's never had reason to complain about his work being misinterpreted in the past, and having Cleo premiered at the National must feel like a personal vindication for the man whose 1993 play, Hysteria, the self-same company refused to commission.

Johnson has dismissed his work with a casual, "It's an irrevocable slide into light entertainment", but no one else does. His ability to blend true farce with contemporary drama has made him one of this country's leading comic playwrights. He uses the Ray Cooney trouser-dropping, bed- hopping routines as the structure for his writing, but underscores the text with psychological investigations into behaviour where anyone with the slightest pretensions is done for. The proximity of the comic to the sadistic makes the desperation of the lives laid bare more striking.

Cleo is Johnson's first play since his 1994 success, Dead Funny, and its genesis has been every bit as torturous as the time-scale might suggest: "In the past it was enough for my plays to be vaguely intelligent, but now I couldn't bear it if people didn't have a great time, too." He seems to have no grasp that his major talent has always been to entertain. The clutch of awards he's been showered with hasn't impinged much either; he probably reckons he just got lucky or that every other play just happened to be even worse than his.

It's almost as if Johnson finds the whole process of writing too unrewarding, and he frequently moans about winding up as sad and depressed as Arnold Wesker and Peter Nichols. He would much rather have been a stand-up comedian, but he lacks the ability to improvise. His scripts are often peppered with blanks and the word "Joke" while he struggles to come up with the killer gag. "When you fail to rise to the demands of playwriting, the best you can do is go down the shops or nip back to bed. It's a slow grind down to stasis and a slow crawl out of it. Being over 40 is a dangerous area for a playwright. You try to be more truthful, but what is there to be more truthful about? Falling in love with a younger woman ... that's about it."

Which just so happens to be pretty much what Cleo is all about. The play takes place over a period of 14 years from 1964 to 1978 and is set backstage during the making of four Carry On films - hence the title - and revolves around Sid James's infatuation with Barbara Windsor.

For someone who prefers to keep his personal life a closed book and who insists that he's astonished by people's obsession with the rich and famous, it's strange that Johnson has made his name by stuffing his plays full of well-known personalities. Insignificance featured Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio, Hysteria had Sigmund Freud and Salvador Dali, and the ghosts of Frankie Howerd and Benny Hill loomed in Dead Funny.

"I don't do it to promote celebrities as cults," Johnson says. "I do it as a quick way into talking about something. You don't have to explain who Einstein is. Ibsen wrote those hugely tedious first acts full of children running about so that you cared about the people who owned them. If he'd had my bright idea, he could have made his plays a lot shorter."

This is typical Johnson. A touch of humour to deflect an awkward question. For while his answer has a ring of authenticity, it is not wholly convincing. To use the same device four times suggests a fascination for celebs that goes beyond idle curiosity. A similar sort of ambivalence characterises his writing for women.

Over the years, Johnson has gained a reputation for being one of the few male playwrights who write sympathetic roles for women. Yet, for someone who has been credited with such insight into the female psyche, he appears genuinely confused by the way women behave. But rather than admitting this - or perhaps not even realising it - he opted for the safety of political correctness.

All this may be about to change, though. "For some time I've been pretending to understand women with some mysterious success," Johnson joked in February. "But I'm beginning to wonder if I haven't given them the benefit of too much doubt. It seems to me that both sexes always will have different agendas, and that we've just developed a set of games to pretend it is not so. In other words, women try to achieve male power by using their sexuality in a male way, and men try to crush women's aspirations to power by pretending to be women."

In other words, women are as duplicitous as men. He went on to warn that women had better watch out when he wrote another play. It'll be a few days yet before we know whether Johnson has done what he promised, but if I were Barbara Windsor I wouldn't be feeling too comfortable right now.

`Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick' is in preview at the Lyttelton, National Theatre, London SE1 (0171-452 3000)

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'