Leo Butler: That's not an usher, that's the author ...

He started on the door, now he writes the plays.
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The Independent Culture

Ask most 27-year-olds who rocked their world aged 13, and few, one suspects, would cite Samuel Beckett. But Leo Butler, the Royal Court's latest wunderkind, stumbled upon a TV dramatisation of Beckett's Happy Days as a teenager and thought "Wow! How can absolutely nothing happen and yet it can be so engrossing?" More incredibly, Butler manages to say this without sounding the least bit pretentious. Slightly shy with a softly spoken Sheffield accent, the only person not bigging up Butler ­ the first new young playwright to be tested out on the Royal Court's main stage since Jez Butterworth's Mojo premiered six years ago ­ is Butler himself. No doubt years of rejections and demoralising trips to the dole office have weathered the ego.

Asked if he's nervous about Redundant ­ a play he dashed off in five nights and which has already won an award ­ living up to the hype, he replies, "Not really", before admitting he's anxious about what his friends and family will think. And that's not just because he values their opinion. It's a very personal play, Butler says, its "spiritually redundant" characters inspired by people he has come across while odd-jobbing and signing on. The similarities with Gregory Burke ­ the 33-year-old who spent years performing "a variety of vital roles in the minimum wage economy" before stealing the show at Edinburgh last month with his debut Gagarin Way ­ is lost on Butler, who's oblivious to Burke's reputation and the play's imminent arrival at the National Theatre. A sign, perhaps, of too many hours spent holed up in the Court's Young Writer's Workshop ­ the outcome of which was his play Made in Stone and a 10-week attachment to the Court as writer in residence.

The theatre has been Butler's benefactor in more ways than one. Before he discovered the workshop scheme, he was soaking up plays like Conor McPherson's The Weir as a Royal Court usher. Then, as a cloakroom attendant, he says he would scribble play scripts in between taking people's coats. Now, he has a room in the building and is finally being paid to do a job his dole officers have been reluctant to acknowledge.

The struggling writer is hardly a new phenomenon. More surprising is the fact that Butler hasn't been seduced, as many male writers his age are, by the prospect of writing for film. "The thing I love about theatre," he explains, "is that it's live. I find it a lot purer than films. There's something about the live experience ... the audience are just as much a part of the play as the actors. And nowadays I think it's more important than ever that theatre's still around because the world is so sort of closed off and dislocated."

The last 27-year-old to debut on the Court's main stage was John Osborne with Look Back in Anger. Does that make Butler feel any more intimidated? "The great thing about this theatre," he says, resolutely level-headed, "is the George Devine philosophy of 'the right to fail'." So it wouldn't put him off if Redundant wasn't a success? "Nope," he replies. "I'll always carry on writing ­ whatever."

'Redundant': Royal Court Downstairs, London SW1 (020 7565 5000), to 6 October

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