From the stalls to the best seat in the house

First hit at 22, latest play at the Royal Court - Kate Bassett meets David Eldridge, a working-class Romford boy done very good indeed
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The Independent Culture

David Eldridge leads a double life. On the one hand, he's a mild-mannered, well-read dramatist. On the other, he's a working class lad from Romford. His conversation, in interview, is strewn with enthusiastic literary allusions and he's clearly rated as a Bright Young Thing by many in the theatrical establishment.

David Eldridge leads a double life. On the one hand, he's a mild-mannered, well-read dramatist. On the other, he's a working class lad from Romford. His conversation, in interview, is strewn with enthusiastic literary allusions and he's clearly rated as a Bright Young Thing by many in the theatrical establishment.

He first won glowing reviews as a "real find and a talent to treasure" in 1996 with his debut, Serving it Up, at the Bush in West London.

Aged just 22, Eldridge was catapulted into the company of Sarah Kane, Joe Penhall et al as a core member of the vaunted, emerging wave of new British dramatists. He was selected to be a writer in residence at the National Theatre Studio and his subsequent piece, Summer Begins, arrived at Sam Mendes's Donmar Warehouse in 1997.

This week sees the opening of Eldridge's latest work, rather prettily entitled Under the Blue Sky, which contemplates three couples, unrequited love and - as Eldridge puts it - "the responsibility we hold in relationships." With a cast including Sheila Hancock, it is playing at the prestigious Royal Court in Chelsea.

Yet Eldridge's roots are, socially, a world away from Sloane Square. He is a chunky, shorn-headed "Essex Boy" and sports a strong Estuary accent. He grew up and continues to live in Romford, paying rent to his parents and hanging out with his mates who, he remarks appreciatively, "are very far removed from the world of theatre".

He is the youngest child of two East Enders. His mother was brought up within the sound of Bow bells and his father, whose relations still reside in Hackney, migrated to Romford to labour as a factory shoemaker. David's two older siblings are now comfortably off with careers in finance. But their dad was so poorly paid he had to run a market stall on the side, and Eldridge's first job was hawking women's sandals.

Artistically, this puts Eldridge in fine company: Charles Dickens, Tennessee Williams and Tom Stoppard have all emerged from the cobbling trade. But more pragmatically, Eldridge's mum set her sights on an upmarket education for her son. "She paid for me to have private tuition," Eldridge explains. He got a part-scholarship and assisted place to the independent school, Brentwood.

"So I'd start the day," he remembers, "setting out the stall in my scruffy jeans, then I'd get in the trailer, put on my tweed uniform - which I hated - and head off to school. Then I'd return in the evening, doing the same in reverse."

The young Eldridge felt a misfit amongst Brentwood's posh and monied pupils. Nevertheless, he made friends playing football and, in the sixth form, discovered theatre. "A new drama teacher arrived," Eldridge recalls. "I'd never been to a play and only signed up to keep my mate company as the rest of the class were girls. It was like a revelation." His formative experience was seeing King Lear, starring John Wood, at the Barbican in London.

He consequently headed off to read English and Drama - rather than History and Politics as planned - at Exeter University. Once again, he encountered a social divide with the campus being "generally populated by the green welly brigade" while the Drama department (where Eldridge's Shenfield-born girlfriend is now following in his footsteps) was, he says, "the preserve of left-wingers."

Eldridge started out intending to direct. "I wanted to be Sam Mendes", he admits. Yet he became disillusioned with that field, was impressed by the plays of David Hare and Trevor Griffiths, and turned to writing.

"Initially", Eldridge remarks, "it was just to wind down from revising Paradise Lost that I started writing a bit of dialogue." But Serving It Up grew out of those jottings and - with the action being set on his family's tough home turf and focusing on rough disaffected youths - Eldridge was soon being critically hailed as the voice of the streets.

Certainly Eldridge feels "driven to get my voice heard", as someone from England's underclass. He specifically remembers being spurred on "by seeing my father out in the shed every night, hammering heels onto shoes for 10p a pair." He also pointedly views playwrighting as "a craft, like being a wheelwright."

"However", he groans, "I can't tell you how frustrating it's been being pigeonholed by Serving It Up. I may be labelled an Essex Boy, but I've got lots more voices in my head and more stories to tell."

Under the Blue Sky marks the first of these stories; the protagonists here are teachers, based, at least partly, on Eldridge's own friends. This play," he says with a grin, "has been inspired by years of their gossip. In a way, this piece traces my own journey too, going from the East End to Essex to Devon. And," he adds, "it is ultimately about the possibility of change."

Moving on is all-important to Eldridge. "My writing has changed so much since Serving It Up," he says. "I think it's got richer, more detailed, more oblique. I'm now fascinated by poetic writers like Peter Gill or Robert Holman's Making Noise Quietly."

Not everyone would describe Eldridge as advancing by leaps and bounds since Serving It Up. I, for one, was sorely disappointed by Summer Begins and Falling, Eldridge's hospital drama staged at Hampstead Theatre.

However, Eldridge defends himself robustly when I suggest his writing might be soapy. "I regarded Falling," he argues, "as reappropriating territory - the hospital setting - from television." He says he dislikes TV's typically shallow realism and is interested in theatre's tradition of hinting at emotional caverns between the lines.

On one level, Eldridge admits he has lacked confidence in his own voice. "I couldn't have done this interview five years ago," he says. Nevertheless, he believes his characters have become gradually more eloquent, and he feels that, "In Under the Blue Sky, I've found my own voice more than ever before."

The future is looking pretty bright too. Eldridge has further commissions from the Court, the Bush and Radio 4. Last month, BBC1 screened Killers, a short centring around pub talk which Eldridge lightly describes as Wanstead's answer to The Weir. And he's working on a film version of Serving It Up. His current ambition is resolutely theatrical, however. "I'd like to write a bigger work and have a play at the National", he declares. "That's like earning your England cap."

'Under The Blue Sky': Royal Court Upstairs, SW1 (020 7565 5000), to 7 October