Chris O'Connell: Why the kids are not all right

The playwright Chris O'Connell's work as a probation officer gave him a unique insight into the link between youth and crime. It's all there on stage, he tells Rachel Halliburton
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The Independent Culture

There is an incredible moment near the end of Chris O'Connell's latest play, Kid, when a heavily pregnant young mother realises that she cannot bear to bring her baby into the world of missed opportunities and crime that she inhabits.

The frustration and resentment that has been simmering up inside her throughout the drama spills over, as suddenly she begins to smash her fists at the bulge where her baby lies. It is a shocking symbol of a woman trying to save her child from the ditch of casual crime that has engulfed her all her life, only to realise that the more she struggles the more she seems to be dragged back. Following a boyhood of car-stealing and petty thieving, her fiancé, Lee, is attempting to get back on the straight and narrow but can't resist a little dodgy dealing, while the arrival of his friend K from jail threatens to take all three into far murkier waters.

Kid is the third play in O'Connell's blistering trilogy investigating what drives young people to crime. The rage of disaffected youth has recently provided the raw fuel for several of British theatre's successes - not least Elmina's Kitchen at the National and Flesh Wound at the Royal Court - but what marks O'Connell out is his emphasis on workshopping his plays with the help of the young people whose lives he chronicles.

"I was working heavily in the probation service in the mid-Nineties," he reveals in a bar on Shaftesbury Avenue, London, "and that was when the trilogy really began to develop in my head. The media is so obsessed with the idea of the demons on our streets, and I wanted to raise the debate about how people become entrenched in that criminal lifestyle."

Car, which won a Scotsman-awarded Fringe First and the Time Out Live award when it transferred to London, conveyed the high-octane excitement of stealing vehicles, and introduced O'Connell as a writer who could convincingly articulate the passions of the inarticulate. His second play, Raw, was a jagged investigation of female violence; a phenomenon that has begun to make headlines relatively recently, although O'Connell has been aware of it for a decade. "When I was writing Car, I was dealing with girls through the probation service who scared me just as much as the guys did. There was no point in suggesting that you might try to appeal to their essential nature as females - whichever sex they were, these kids had an agenda that was connected to being on the outside of society and dealing with life on those terms."

He tells an extraordinary story about the 18-year-old granddaughter of friends, who was beaten up by another girl in an unprovoked attack outside a nightclub. "As she was lying on the ground, the girl turned on her and said, 'You'll never forget the night that Tracey Smith beat the shit out of you.'" He also read about a woman who was mugged at knife-point. "All she could remember was two girls in tracksuits, with blonde hair and pretty faces - and the shock when they came up to her and pointed the knife."

Sometimes - no matter how good the play - there is a slight discomfort in watching dramas about people living on estates. It feels hypocritical to display an interest in the lives of the dispossessed while comfortably seated in an elitist environment. However, O'Connell's trilogy derives part of its power from refusing to aim for middle-class consumption. Perhaps one of the reasons he hasn't won greater recognitionis his determination to do no more than chronicle what he has seen as a probation officer.

He concedes that there is a faintly idealistic aspect to his work. "I'm trying to pinpoint why crime is happening, and why people are becoming more and more afraid of the streets. There has to be some kind of vision in the way you redress that - and locking people away in prisons simply indicates a refusal to make serious investments in helping people turn their lives around."

The tragedy underpinning Kid is precisely how difficult it is for young people to transform their lives alone. "What I discovered in probation is that often when young offenders hit their mid-twenties they do want to straighten out. In my experience, for violent young men that can be triggered either by falling in love, or when they get someone pregnant. So many times I've heard boys say, 'I'm going to be a dad soon, I'm going to sort myself out.' But equally, some people can't begin to get themselves out of the rut, and it's by comparing two individuals in both those situations that I found a starting point for my play."

Asked why he hasn't focused more on the relationship between drugs and crime, O'Connell says: "Of course drugs go hand in hand with a lot of the themes I'm addressing, and that's implicit in my work, but I don't think it's necessarily interesting to concentrate on them. Equally, when I was touring with Car and showing it to a lot of boys who had been involved in car-stealing, one point that came up was that I hadn't shown enough police officers in my work, because in these kids' lives there are policemen banging on their doors 24 hours a day.

"But I want to fire their imaginations by focusing on their internal rather than their external landscape, and help them in that way to explore how they're living. That, for me, is the power of this work."

'Kid' is at the Pleasance Courtyard (0131-556 6550) to Monday