It's going to the dogs

The drama of greyhound racing provides the inspiration for a new play
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The Independent Culture

A crash-repair workshop may not seem the ideal spawning-ground for an award-winning play, but it was for Matt Charman. He had just finished a degree in English at London University, and was living at home in Horsham, when he got a job at a local garage. During the year he spent washing and polishing repaired cars, the 25-year-old came up with the idea for A Night at the Dogs, which won 2004's Verity Bargate Award, and is about to open at the Soho Theatre.

A crash-repair workshop may not seem the ideal spawning-ground for an award-winning play, but it was for Matt Charman. He had just finished a degree in English at London University, and was living at home in Horsham, when he got a job at a local garage. During the year he spent washing and polishing repaired cars, the 25-year-old came up with the idea for A Night at the Dogs, which won 2004's Verity Bargate Award, and is about to open at the Soho Theatre.

"It was an interesting place," he says now. "You got crashed cars coming in on the back of a lorry that get rebuilt, resprayed, and sent back out again. They were all different inside, and you saw what tapes the owners had, what toys, and so on.

"But it was more the people. The men I worked with said things to colleagues that they wouldn't say at home. You build up a familiarity with people you work with. They see you take awkward phone calls, or come in with a bandage on your hand and they ask why and you tell them things you wouldn't necessarily tell other people. I got interested in what people told each other at work, and in work friendships and relationships.

"There's a chance at work to be different to how you are at home, but then, when you work with people 12 hours a day, they eventually see what you are."

Another source of inspiration were evenings spent at the Walthamstow and Wimbledon dog tracks. "I went along because it's a fun, cheap night if you don't take the betting side too seriously But there are guys putting £200-£300 on a dog, and you start to think about the level of seriousness that entails."

Thus inspired, he sat down and wrote a play, his first, which he then entered for the Verity Bargate Award (presented every two years to the most outstanding unproduced play by an emerging playwright). "You wouldn't put the thing in if you didn't have hope, but when I heard that they'd had 700 entries, it gave me a reality check. It did dent my ambitions a bit."

It needn't have. The play opens on Friday, and concerns four men who work at a Walthamstow garage and get together to buy a greyhound. Charman explains: "Racehorses are incredibly expensive, but greyhounds are attainable for a lot of people, especially in a syndicate. All the hopes and dreams of these guys are invested in this dog, which they've saved up for. They've paid for injections and kennels and all that, and the play is set on the night of the dog's first race."

Asked how he would describe the play, Charman says, "The phrase 'dark comedy' always suggests to me that it's not funny - but it's a black comedy, I suppose, in that things take a turn for the worse."

Joining the cast, in the role of Sharkey's Necklace, is a retired greyhound belonging to the actress Annette Crosbie, who is actually a vociferous campaigner against dog racing.

Next up for Charman is a second play, commissioned by the Soho Theatre. His career certainly isn't going to the dogs.

'A Night at the Dogs', Soho Theatre, London W1 (0870 429 6883), from Friday to 14 May

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