Edinburgh Festival '99: Driven to a life of crime

When four youths go joyriding, there are terrible consequences - and a great play. By Rachel Halliburton
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The Independent Culture
Theatre Absolute's Car begins with a torrent of words, as a man infuriated by the theft of his car spews his frustration at the audience. The speed of the language shoots through your veins, thrilling you at the same time as it alerts you to the mental chaos sparked off by his loss. It is an arresting beginning for a play that debates the relationship between victims of crime and the young offenders who thrive on the fast fantasies and illicit thrills of joy riding. The play controversially links the compulsion towards speed and violence with the psychological chaos of both victim and thief, and asks what makes the difference between those who distil such chaos into a law-abiding existence and those who use it to fuel a life of crime.

Car's issues may make it sound like a worthy piece of liberalism, but the skills of playwright Chris O'Connell have elevated it into a piece of hardcore entertainment with a manic momentum and a cast of frenetic and absorbing characters. When it was performed in Coventry, the Coventry Evening Telegraph proclaimed: "Car does for joy-riding what Trainspotting did for drugs." Certainly, the buzz that the four boys get from stealing the car is resonant of a drug-induced high, as they ecstatically relive the theft and bicker about who should take the credit. Churning through each of their minds, however, is the more chilling memory that this time their exploits almost killed the car's owner. The remainder of the play's action deals with the confusion of guilt and frustration this highlights in their lives.

O'Connell first became fascinated with the mentality behind car stealing when he worked on a play called Bad in the early Nineties, which was devised over three months inside a young offenders' institute. Sitting in the Pleasance Courtyard, shortly after it has been announced that his play has won an Edinburgh Fringe First, he explains how he became "quite hooked and absorbed by a world that we know is there but often don't get involved with".

O'Connell's interest led to his signing up to work at first a probation centre and then in the cells at a magistrate's court, where he encountered criminals ranging from car thieves to murderers, rapists, and paedophiles. His experiences in both jobs led him to conclude that "we all walk a line". "I think those who can rationalise or make sense of their angst stay on what is legally perceived to be the right side, but there are others who, for whatever reason, can't rationalise, can't make sense of their lives, and they're the people I'm really interested in."

This sense that we can all flirt with the darker side of our characters pervades the play and gives the characters a complexity which stops them from being reduced to pawns for polemic. When Gary has his car stolen, he tells Rob - a probation officer for one of the boys - that he feels "violent, like I could lose control". Car is as obsessed by his need to exact a violent revenge, and his attempts to control this need, as it is successful in conveying the initial thrill for the boys who reduced him to this state. The central scenario - a mediation session where Nick, one of the boys, tries to explain his actions while apologising to a fulminating Gary - ends up being an almost tragi-comic representation of the contradictions that go on in both characters' heads.

Nick's account of the thrill that temporarily blinded him and his friends to the danger they inflicted on Gary when he was trying to stop them resonates throughout Car. O'Connell has a strong feel for the rhythm and poetry of language, and this leads to a verbal music that is as charged with the excitement of car stealing as the meaning of its words. Although three of the boys speak with what O'Connell calls an "urban bluntness", Jason is given to flights of lyricism, speeding away on streams of consciousness that try to catch up with his thoughts. Describing the theft, he rants about "the speed, and the wind, the air vents open and the cold air whistling though the dashboard. The vanished streets, lanky streetlamps and shadow cats, black fat cats, jumping clear, everyone's seen the dog leaping, fur shrieking, paws trembling."

"What I always felt when I was working on Bad and in the probation centre was that there was a poetry inside people, inside everybody, to express their dreams and desires," explains O'Connell. "Jason is speaking like that because he's taking drugs, but also inside of him - and inside lots of people who may be constant reoffending criminals - there are fascinating poetic urges that can't find a chance to be expressed." His description of such urges as "poetic" also gives a clue to O'Connell's interest in people such as Jason: for while he acknowledges what they do is wrong and self-destructive, he is also sneakingly envious of the liberation of their lifestyle. "They don't really recognise the boundaries and that was why Jason's language was so embellished and expansive - because he just goes into the absolute extreme of every image."

When statistics were last collected, it was revealed that more than 399,000 cars a year are stolen in Britain, but while O'Connell's ambiguous stance may have brought him closer than others to understanding what motivates such thefts, he has no answers about how to help boys who drive down the fast lane of the wild side. I ask him why all the boys either die or commit suicide at the end of the play, and after looking briefly stunned - as if realising for the first time what this could convey - he emphasises that he does not mean to say that their situation is hopeless. "I always felt when I was working at the probation centre that there was something rattling away inside people not able to get out, and Car was trying to express that frustration with the intolerance of people who stand on the legitimate side of the tracks. The only way we can redress this is through investment, not just financially but emotionally. There has to be that realisation that it's a problem we all have to solve.'

`Car' is at The Pleasance, Venue 33 (0131 556 6550) 4pm until 30 Aug

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