THEATRE / Crash-landings in the drink: James Robson's new play for the RSC is the result of one hangover too many. Sarah Hemming reports

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JAMES ROBSON sits squarely behind a large mug of tea in the greasy spoon caff near to the RSC's rehearsal rooms. We are here to discuss his new play, King Baby. In this drama every character, bar one, is an alcoholic. Why so, I ask, rather gingerly. He looks me straight in the eye. 'Because I am one,' he says, in the same matter-of-fact tone with which he earlier remarked on the snowfall in Yorkshire.

King Baby, which opens in the Pit next week, is set in a drying-out centre. 'In September 1991 I finally got myself into a rehabilitation unit,' says Robson, frankly. 'And I'd been there a week when I realised there was a play in that place that was screaming to be written. They are rooms where people either spill the beans or they don't. It's an interesting psychological situation.'

Robson's play presents a group of diverse characters who are all trying to kick the habit, egged on by their counsellor, Jimmy, to talk until they find the root of their problems. But the new recruit, James King - the 'King Baby' of the play's title and a tough, successful businessman - refuses to bare his soul as required. The play is driven by the tug of war between the obdurate King and the mercurial, passionate Jimmy, who is determined to make him give way.

'There are people who are just so static they can't be broken, you know, and they go out and drink again,' says Robson. 'You must do it, you must break yourself down and give. The hardest thing is that first realisation that you are one and then accepting it. Then you're half-way there. That was very, very hard for me.'

One imagines that re-entering this world as a writer must be painful for Robson. On the contrary, he says, 'It's one of the easiest things I've ever written. I felt that I'd been moving towards it for a long time. There are all sorts of things I'd been carrying around with me for years and had finally found a place for . . . It was difficult to prevent it becoming too dark - it could just have been a dirge. But there is a lot of humour in these places - they aren't miserable at all. People laugh a lot and it's a tremendous relief to hear what everybody else has done. You always think what you've done is the worst - but when you hear some of the other things, you think, 'I haven't started yet]' '

Some of the characters' confessions make your hair stand on end, and while most of their drunken misdemeanours are Robson's invention, he admits that a few were drawn from his encounters in the unit: 'There's one alcoholic lady from Leeds who is coming down to hear her lines and check up on me]' But he adds quickly that he does want the play to have a broad appeal. 'I don't want the audience to be busloads of alcoholics] I hope it will work for everybody. I didn't want to write a play just about alcoholism and being an alcoholic. It has to be about more than that. In the end I think it's about whether we can renew our lives or not. I never used to believe that we could renew ourselves - I thought after a certain age we were fixed and we couldn't break out of our characters. Now I think you can.'

Robson's belief in regeneration ensures that the play is a positive one. 'I think a play should be cathartic. I love that shape - conflict, peripeteia, catharsis, relief. You've got to send people out thinking the world's a better place.' But he is uncompromising about the seriousness of his subject, and bemused by the fact that, while plays about other issues are frequently staged, you rarely see a play tackling alcoholism head on.

'I don't know why that is. I think it is an evil thing. I really mean that - I think it's a Gothic evil in society. You've only got to read a couple of weeks' newspapers to see the effects of alcohol. Nearly all the people who murder are drunk. Alcohol is taking a terrible toll on many societies. I don't mean that people shouldn't go out for a drink, or get pissed now and then, but we must realise that to certain people it is poison . . . I think the problem is getting worse because of the availability of alcohol and because of advertising. It's so deeply ingrained in this society that people can't seem to enjoy themselves without it. In fact there's nothing you do in drink that isn't 10 times better without it. But I think alcoholism is something governments daren't touch and nobody really wants to know about.'

King Baby marks Robson's return to the stage after several years spent writing for soap operas ('good for my plotting; bad for my head') and he relishes his new lease of life. 'It's all I want to do. There's nothing like doing plays. I think so much television is so tinny.'

It has to be said, though, that even his early work reveals a taste for dark subjects. His second play, Waiting at the Field Gate, was a black comedy about a man who, having failed to commit suicide, spends much of the action in a pub on the Yorkshire moors trying to find someone to kill him.

'It wasn't gloomy,' he protests. 'It was quite funny really. I suppose I do like extreme subjects. I always write about failures too - I think failures are far more interesting than successes. I like plays that are about the breakdown of relationships and getting down to the nitty gritty. I don't find the writing difficult - it's the living that's difficult.'

Robson has no qualms about using his experiences for his art. 'People will say that I'm a reporter, but I think I'm more than that. And I think that writers should go out into life. I would even go so far as to say that they should get grants to go out and work in factories or football clubs or whatever and come back with a play. Nothing wrong with that.'

One could argue that, in King Baby in particular, presenting the fruits of experience on stage places the audience in the position of voyeur. Robson shrugs. 'It doesn't bother me at all. It's a very frank play. But this is what most plays do, isn't it, only in a less upfront way? You've got to find out what these characters have done and what makes them tick.'

Robson naturally hopes that his play will throw some light on the lonely experience of being alcoholic and contribute to a better understanding of the disease. 'I can't say otherwise. But first of all I want it to work as a piece of drama, and I want it to go on from the alcoholism to other things as well. If you've come through it yourself, you want to give something back. I'm not telling people how to behave, though I would hope for a greater understanding. I feel I owe it . . . it's the most altruistic play I've ever done.'

James Robson lives in North Yorkshire. His first stage play, Factory Birds, was performed by the RSC and won the Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright in 1978. Stage plays include: Forgive Me Delilah and Wedding Song. TV includes: Girl, Waiting at the Field Gate, Getting Out Easy, In the Dean Spell, Howl, The Dig, Refusing to Soldier (all BBC). He has contributed to Emmerdale Farm and The Archers.

'King Baby' previews from 13 Jan and opens 19 Jan at The Pit, Barbican Centre, London EC2 (071-638 8891)

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