The agent, the catcher, the cradle-snatcher

THE FIXERS 3. Mel Kenyon With her pioneering list of young playwrights, she is proving a worthy successor to the legendary Peggy Ramsay. Paul Taylor on an agent with a razor-sharp eye for raw talent
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The Independent Culture
In 1995, the proud winner was unveiled of the first Peggy Ramsay Play Award, a prize instituted in memory of the formidable, not to say legendary, agent whose unsurpassed flair for spotting and nurturing new writing talent made her one of the crucial architects of Britain's post- war theatrical renaissance. Precisely what, though - several reviewers were moved to wonder - would she have made of the winning entry, Rona Munro's The Maiden Stone, a piece where folklore and feminism, a troupe of English thesps and poverty-stricken, Doric-spouting locals collided in the bleak north-east Scotland of the early 19th century?

The Spectator was in no doubt that the notoriously frank and indiscreet Ramsay would have "hurled the script across the office once she realised it came complete with a glossary of prehistoric Scots dialect and a lot of unfathomable characters rolling around in mud". And while Time Out's contention that this doyenne of agents "was about as concerned with feminism as Baroness Thatcher" may have been a soupcon extreme, a fondness for women was certainly very much not her forte.

Believing wives to be mere hindrances to work, she would encourage her writers to have affairs and once - deliberately confusing Peter Nichols's wife, Thelma, with Valerie, the wife of Charles Wood - she treated Mrs Nichols to the view that "the trouble with Charles is that he will never write a good play until he gets rid of that awful Thelma". On the other hand, Ramsay did make a small number of exceptions gender-wise (her firm had, after all, taken Munro on as a client) and she was renowned for discerning merit where it had still to make itself visible to others. Besides, she would surely have understood that, as times change, you don't necessarily keep a person's spirit alive by trying to perpetuate his or her taste.

In the light of all this, it's intriguing to speculate about how she would have reacted to Mel Kenyon, the young woman who was brought in by Tom Erhardt after Ramsay's death (in September 1991) and given the bracing brief of building up a list of young dramatists who would count as the future equivalents of the Hares, Hamptons, Bonds, Churchills and Ayckbourns already on its books. At 32, Kenyon belongs to a generation that grew up with feminism as part of the air they breathed. Indeed, she and her friend (and client) Phyllis Nagy published an astringent Guardian piece last month arguing that our confused post-feminist era has seen misogyny bounce back via a phenomenon they describe as the "new laddism", recent plays like Mojo and Not a Game for Boys, produced by young men for young men, with a bravado about their evasions and immaturities which trades on the fact that the female response these days is weary sadness rather than anger.

But if Ramsay would not exactly have recognised an ideological soulmate in Kenyon, it's arguable she'd have identified a kindred spirit in her successor's indefatigable passion for theatre, idiosyncratic taste, and razor-sharp eye for raw talent. What is the connection between, say, Sarah Kane (the author of Blasted, the only first play in recent times to make it on to the front pages and Newsnight), David Harrower (whose debut drama, Knives in Hens, was unanimously rated "remarkable" and "of rare promise" when it opened at the Bush last month) and David Greig (acclaimed by the press as "the most interesting and important playwright to have emerged north of the Border in years" for his 1994 play Europe)? The most concrete answer to that question is that these writers were all cradle-snatched, so to speak, by Kenyon.

Inviting her on to the team was an extremely shrewd move on Erhardt's part for the additional reason that, thanks to an earlier career at the Royal Court, she arrived armed with invaluable ready-made connections and an impressive reputation for dramaturgical skills. At Manchester University, she read English and Drama. Author Stephen Jeffreys, the Court's Literary Associate, remembers first seeing her at a National Student Playwriting Competition where she was participating in a dance-drama about anorexia. That now takes quite a bit of imagining since her subsequent progress at the Court, where in the late 1980s and early 1990s she was successively administrative assistant to Max Stafford-Clark and a very young literary manager, helped to form her very non-performance art aesthetic, with its emphasis on the primacy and purity of the writer's vision and on the need for work to be, in some sense, socially challenging.

Describing her as "possibly the fittest literary manager the Court has ever had" (thoroughbred-lean, she's apparently run in the London Marathon), Jeffreys remembers her relentlessness and enthusiasm (the "grid" or chart of plays under consideration had 40 to 50 works on it, in her day, as opposed to an average of 20 to 30). Through her involvement with the Young People's Theatre there, she established very useful contacts among fledgling writers. Above all, she learnt how to read, analyse and develop a script. Jenny Topper, artistic director of Hampstead Theatre, remarks that, unlike Kenyon, "quite a lot of agents expect me to do all the dramaturgical work" and also notes her strongly "maternal" relationship to her clients. Sarah Kane, snapped up from David Edgar's playwriting course at Birmingham University, gratefully recalls how "Mel soaked up all the pressure" for her during the media feeding frenzy about Blasted. "Certain agents I have fired," remarks the ironic Phyllis Nagy, "always had one eye on the next project they wanted to place at a particular theatre", but Kenyon's attention remains focused on the interests of the play, not some personal game-plan.

An agent with a pioneering list needs like-minded producers who are prepared to take risks. Peggy Ramsay developed a strong relationship with Michael Codron. In like manner, Kenyon is cultivating the new generation of young producer. It was at the Court that she made a friend and squash partner of Guy Chapman, then the theatre's marketing director, now in a two-pronged business of his own with publicist Cameron Duncan. He produced the highly successful tour of Nagy's Disappeared and in the spring will bring another Kenyon-derived piece, Jimmy Murphy's Brothers of the Brush to the Arts Theatre. While feeling that the degree of control she demands over projects can sometimes be unhelpful, Chapman is all admiration for her list: "These are the names of the future."

There are people who think she's buying heavily into the myth of herself as a second Ramsay and there's resentment in certain quarters at the favouritism she shows to the Royal Court. But though one of my informants remarked that "you're never on the phone long to Mel before she's picking you up over some political incorrectness", it's striking how many of the plays she's represented have been about refusing to accept rigid categories, whether political or sexual, and about teasing redefinitions.

She's also the first to acknowledge the enviable luxury of her position, having inherited Ramsay's priceless list in a firm that has secured its future by joining forces with Jenne Casarotto, the film and television agent. "No one is saying, 'Look, if you don't get a play on in the West End within six months, you're out on your ear.' I thank God every day that I'm in this job. Well, I don't get down on my knees..." (it is indeed tricky to picture this fiercely articulate woman prostrate in prayer). Her long-term ambition is simply expressed. "I'd like to die," she says, "knowing I'd put some great writers on the stage."

n In tomorrow's The Fixers Kevin Jackson meets Mark Shivas, head of BBC Films, a man giving Channel 4 Films a run for its money