Made-up lives of the rich and famous

Drama based on tales of celebrity has many pitfalls. Phil Tinline on the secrets of a good bio-play
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Next month, Boy George will start appearing in Taboo, the West End musical that charts his rise to fame. And you can't get much more authentic than that, can you? Well, yes you can. For a start, George won't be replacing Euan Morton, the actor who plays the singer's younger self. He's going to play the late, outrageous performance artist Leigh Bowery, which promises the bizarre spectacle of George-playing-Leigh opposite Euan-playing-George. The problem is that the presence of the man himself is unlikely to make up for Mark Davies's oddly inauthentic book, which reduces much of George's life to generic cliché. Taboo is largely saved by Euan Morton's eerily perfect performance, but it shows how tricky it is to craft a convincing play from the life of a real celebrity.

Plays with fictional plots have a natural arc, working out the consequences of their opening situation. But real life isn't quite that simple. So writers of biographical plays tend to trawl through their subject's life, picking out interesting bits at random, even if they're separated by years. Often, as in Taboo, this means the action is repeatedly halted to explain each new situation. But the most painful exposition in staged lives of the famous is when other famous names are casually dropped in. In the West End last year, Ronald Harwood's Mahler's Conversion featured such gems as: "That will be my good friend Johannes Brahms. Another composer," and "It's very fashionable to talk of identity at the moment. I blame Sigmund Freud".

Nonetheless, writing about real lives is a tempting choice for many playwrights – it offers ready-made stories and instant name-recognition. So far this year, we've had Diane Samuels' The True Life Fiction of Mata Hari, Peter Ackroyd's The Mystery of Charles Dickens and Janet Munsil's take on Louise Brooks and Kenneth Tynan, Smoking with Lulu. And over the next couple of months we're in for several more.

Nicholas Wright, whose new play Vincent in Brixton starts previewing at the National this week, is well aware of the pitfalls of bioplays. "If you're trying to tell the person's life story, that's hopeless," he says. "It's much better done in a biography. Plays are for writers to explore aspects of human life that interest them." In Vincent, Wright explores his fascination with van Gogh's brief residence in south London in 1873. He has the young Dutchman – then working as an art dealer – encountering the radical aesthetics of John Ruskin and William Morris. Though thankfully he avoids having Ruskin stop by in person to spell them out.

Wright dodges many other trademark pitfalls of the bioplay. As in Mrs Klein, his 1988 hit about the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, he doesn't skip merrily from location to barely-defined location, but creates a productive tension between a single London setting and a continental protagonist. He confines himself to one brief period so he can keep things moving. There is no vast archive to get bogged down in, just a few letters, so Wright can let his imagination, rather than his research assistant, do the work. And by exploring the time before van Gogh became "van Gogh", he escapes the clichés of this legendary, much-filmed life – clichés a lesser writer would struggle to resist. As he observes, "There are no severed ears in this play."

The writer and director Tim Fountain – like Wright, a former Literary Manager – is similarly suspicious of "those plays that trawl through someone's life – those Edinburgh Festival shows about Charlotte Bronte that are just a checklist of facts". His own inspiration owes more to recreation than research. Having spent three hours taking tea with Quentin Crisp, he wondered "if I could bottle the ease and joy of the experience" and recreate it for an audience. It turns out he could. Resident Alien, a one-man show with Bette Bourne firing off Crisp one-liners, was a hit earlier this year.

Now, in an inspired move, Fountain is bottling the experience of meeting Julie Burchill. As with Bourne in Resident Alien, Julie Burchill is Away is written with a specific performer – Jackie Clune – in mind. She and Bourne, he says, both have the capacity to "make that raw, stand-up connection with the audience". However, he stresses that these plays are not Stars in Their Eyes: "Impersonation is the thing you've got to get away from – it's interesting for about 30 seconds. You have to treat the person as a dramatic character. The further Bette got from doing Quentin's nasally voice and the more he was just himself, the more the audience believed it was Quentin."

Fountain's approach would work beautifully with that other queen of the one-liner, Mae West. But the American actress Claudia Shear, whose play about West, Dirty Blonde, visits the West Yorkshire Playhouse in July, has had bad experiences with bioplays, and especially solo shows. So when the director James Lapine suggested she write about Mae West, she created two contemporary fans whose Mae-inflected romance is intercut with scenes from the life of the woman herself. Oddly, these fictional scenes make the play, leaving the Mae scenes looking like classic wear-your-research-on-your-sleeve potted biography. But the mix is original and entertaining. In true West style, Shear is both author and star of Dirty Blonde, and when she made her name a few years ago by doing the same in her play Blown Sideways Through Life, she became the first American actress to do this since Mae West appeared at Daly's Theatre in 1927 in her own breakthrough play, Sex.

Most playwrights make their name when they're young, if they make it at all, and very few choose to kick off with a bioplay. So there's a nagging suspicion that the lives of the famous become an appealing source of subject matter only when the first creative fires have burnt out. Perhaps this is why so many bioplays are about artists, and are meditations on creativity. But the reputations and maturity of the writers may also be why so many of these plays find their way to the National Theatre. It's been home to some fine examples from Amadeus to The Madness of George III, and Copenhagen to Stanley; later this year, Ralph Fiennes will appear there as Carl Jung in Christopher Hampton's new play The Talking Cure. Nicholas Wright, an ex-NT Associate Director, suggests bioplays suit the National and its huge appetite for audiences because writing about real, well-known people "gives the public a point of recognition". But – unless the play is something truly special – there's a something slightly safe about this. The director Stephen Daldry once said that the most exciting moment in a play is right at the beginning, when absolutely anything could happen. And this is never quite true if you already know the end of the story.

But at West Yorkshire Playhouse this week a play opens which pulls this sense of security inside out. And All the Children Cried also tackles a real and very well known figure, but here, the public's "point of recognition" is made not welcoming but deeply troubling. Its authors, Beatrix Campbell and Judith Jones are engaged in a "political and theatrical experiment", to see whether the taboo subject of women who kill children can be tackled seriously in a public forum. And they felt, says Judith Jones, "as though we were ducking the issue if we didn't deal with the character we're all mystified by, the 'worst woman in the world', Myra Hindley".

The play is a fictional encounter between two women waiting to see the parole board. Gail is a composite character who has killed a child through neglect. Myra is a fictionalised character based on Hindley. As in conventional bioplays, the audience's knowledge of the real person is part of the writers' material. Similarly, Tim Fountain's point that the need to see the onstage character as a character, not an impersonation, is especially vital in this case. This ambiguous familiarity makes the play far more disturbing than if the character were completely fictional. Bioplays go back at least as far as Christopher Marlowe, but this one is without precedent.

'Vincent in Brixton', National Theatre, Cottesloe, London SE1 (020 7452 3000) from Wednesday. 'And All the Children Cried', West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (0113 2137700) to 11 May. 'Taboo', The Venue, London W1 (0870 8993335) to 14 September. 'Julie Burchill is Away', Soho Theatre, London W1 (020 7478 0100) from 6 June to 6 July

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