INTERVIEW / Abrasive action: Playwright Doug Lucie is known for vitriol. But is he going soft? Sarah Hemming reports

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The Independent Culture
PEOPLE don't go to Doug Lucie's plays to be tickled under the chin. In the Eighties, his poisonous and hilarious comedies Fashion and Progress gave us portraits of humanity that might prompt second thoughts about that post-show drink with friends. 'A martini of gall and wormwood about the articulate classes' is how one critic described his style.

Open his latest play, Grace, about an American televangelist, and you expect a latter-day Tartuffe at the very least. But what's this? In Grace somebody actually displays some moral fibre. Not only that, but she is a member of the English upper middle class - a species that you would more usually expect to see barbecued in his plays. Has Doug Lucie gone soft?

'This play has more genuine uplift than anything I've ever written,' agrees Lucie. 'I only realised that about 10 days ago when we were doing a run- through and I found myself moved at the end of it. Usually at the end of a run-through of the play I'm sitting there feeling cold and crystalline and thinking 'This'll hurt]' At this one I was wiping away a tear - and I realised that I'd done something really different.'

He adds hastily, 'there's the usual degree of mutilation and moral laceration - I can't let go of that. But I hope there's more understanding and more sympathy for the way people behave.' He grins, in person an amiable bloke whose only gesture of rebellion is flagrant disregard for his health: he takes two sugars in his coffee and chain-smokes.

The bile in Grace (which opened last night at Hampstead Theatre, London) is largely reserved for the evangelist Neal Hoffman and his henchmen. Hoffman arrives - all prayers, platitudes and indestructible self-righteousness - at an English country house which he expects to turn into an 'Enterprise Faith' centre to expand his business. To create this smug character, Lucie studied the real examples on show.

'You can have a knee-jerk reaction to those people and just dismiss them all as mad. But that isn't really good enough. You've got to try and decide why they believe what they do, and why they operate the way they do. Looking at it more closely, I realised that there's a phenomenal amount of history in those men, to do with the American way of life and business, and the place of God the Father in that tradition. I'm an atheist, but I always imagine that if I did find myself believing in God it would be a liberating experience. But for these people it means taking on a whole life style.'

In Fashion, set in an advertising agency bidding for the Tory Party account, Lucie also focused on a particular life style. A stinging satire, it presented an odious set of yuppies on the make, and warned against the general drift to the Right that Lucie perceived. So, does he think evangelism is as corrosive as he thought Thatcherism was?

'It's as sinister; potentially more sinister. It's a massive institution. And as soon as it becomes as mainstream here as it has in America - watch out]'

But surely we have a history of sceptical thought that makes us less susceptible to emotional manipulation? 'Well, in theory we have,' he admits. 'But you have to have spaces in which to express that. You fight to get that voice heard these days.'

Lucie reckons that money and resources buy clout to propagate your message. Loss of identity in the industralised world, he continues, 'has left a huge vacuum, political, social and spiritual' which he feels can be filled by strongly voiced beliefs. And it is largely with this demoralisation of Nineties Britain in mind that Lucie has changed his tune.

'Before, I tended always to chart decline - that's why the tone of my plays has been the way it is. And though in this play I'm charting more rapid decline, and the exploitation of people in that decline, I'm also trying to explore the possibility for a rise again. I suppose that means I've accepted that things can change for the better, not only for the worse. I didn't use to believe that - I do now.'

Lucie insists, however, that even his earlier plays were not intended to incriminate his audiences. 'I remember after Progress (a portrait of marriage and morals in St John's Wood) was premiered, couples said to me, 'We sat up until 3am discussing that play. We talked about things we'd never talked about before.' For me that was wonderful because the play had gone straight into people's lives.'

Still, many of his plays have presented audiences with an uncomfortable distorting mirror. Grace offers a change.

'I realised a couple of drafts into the play that for once I was probably writing a play that the majority of my audience might agree with. It's a progression in me - now I feel I can stop bouncing around impotently like a pea on a drum pointing my finger at everyone. I can tentatively suggest positive alternatives about ways of behaving and things to believe in.'

Lucie hopes that the defiant gesture shown by Ruth in his play might prove encouraging. But he concedes that the theatrical voice often goes unheeded.

'When Fashion was on at the Tricycle Theatre, Neil and Glenys Kinnock came to see it, and I had this fabulously vainglorious hope that the very next day he would make a speech saying 'I've seen the light - it's all bollocks what I'm doing.' Instead he went the other way]'

This is a bit disheartening. If not even the Leader of the Opposition can be pricked into rethinking his ways, the nasty thought arises that it may not be worth writing about anything serious after all. Lucie is quick on the draw.

'It's better than not writing about it. Theatre's an important place; important things are said there. I know it's unfashionable to say things like that in this cynical society. Say anything sincere and you're simplistic - you get accused of being a luvvie. And,' he adds, revealing that there's life in the old Rottweiler yet, 'if anybody calls me a 'luvvie', they get a smack in the face]'

'Grace' is at the Hampstead Theatre (071-722 9301).

(Photograph omitted)