Moira Buffini: Success on a plate

Moira Buffini's play 'Dinner' is up for an Olivier award tomorrow, but that may be just the start for the founder of 'monsterism', as Isabella Lloyd found out
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" I really do want to say this. This play must transfer to the West End. People are crying out to see this kind of play, a play with meaning, a play where they pay their money and feel they haven't been ripped off at the end of the evening."

" I really do want to say this. This play must transfer to the West End. People are crying out to see this kind of play, a play with meaning, a play where they pay their money and feel they haven't been ripped off at the end of the evening."

Moira Buffini is sitting upright in her south-London flat, skewering me with an intense, blue-eyed stare. She may be a successful playwright but, I tell her, if the theatre work ever dries up, she'd walk it as a fairground barker.

The subject she's selling so keenly is her play Dinner, which premiered for a month at the National Theatre Loft last autumn. Any playwright would want their work to transfer, but the 37-year-old Buffini may be in with a better chance than most. Dinner is one of the contenders in the best new comedy category at tomorrow's Olivier awards, and where awards go, West End transfers often follow.

By her own admission, she is the dark horse in this race. She may have produced a play a year since her debut in 1997, and notched up a matching number of awards – including the LWT Plays on Stage for Gabriel in 1998, and the Susan Smith Blackburn for Silence in 1999 – but Moira Buffini is still a relative unknown, at least compared with her competition at the Oliviers (Alan Ayckbourn, Martin McDonagh and Kenneth Lonergan).

Until now, most of her output has featured her particular, wryly subversive brand of humour, but Dinner, described by one critic as a "weird mix of Buñuel and Ray Cooney", is her blackest and most satirical work yet, in which a group of superficially successful but utterly dim-witted middle-class acquaintances self-destruct over a four-course meal. On the wider meaning of the play, the critics seemed divided. But they were almost unanimous in agreeing on one point: it was howlingly funny.

So the first question on meeting her has to be: why does comedy play such a big part in her writing? "It's strange," she says. "Every time I try to write about something really serious, it goes funny on me. Post-September 11, I felt I needed to write about a world out of joint. So I deliberately made the characters in Dinner intelligent, educated, liberal, selfish miserable people, with a spiritual and moral vacuum at their heart. It's a tragedy, really – there's blood on the carpet, the lead character is suicidal – but I got away with it because it's so bloody funny."

Will she continue to write comedy? "I don't know. If I win [the Olivier award], the danger is that everyone will expect me to write more of the same – and if I try to be funny, I would be dreadful. I'm only funny when I'm being serious. But I do know that I want my next play to be a big play, for a big space."

Ah, the big issue. Buffini, along with a loose-knit group of writers that includes Sarah Woods, Tanika Gupta and Richard Bean, is one of the co-founders of "monsterism", a new theatre movement created at least partly as an antidote to the so-called in-yer-face writers of the Nineties.

Monsterists (from " montrer", to show, and "monster", as in big) have what she calls "an ambition of purpose". "We're trying to get out of the trap writers have been stuck in for the past 30-odd years of writing for little black boxes. We're looking for the broad sweep: pushing the boat out when it comes to form, letting writers under 50 rediscover how to write for large spaces, avoiding empty sensationalism but reaching for the epic. We've had enough of plays about blokes in kitchens and birds in bedrooms."

As it is the producing theatres that are, by and large, the main stumbling blocks to the realisation of this ambition, last year the group applied en masse for every vacant artistic directorship they could find, including that of the RSC. "We said in our application that if they gave us the job, we'd not only give equal funding to living writers as to dead, we'd also set up a series of museums of their bedrooms, à la Anne Hathaway's cottage." What was the RSC's response? "Very... polite."

Funny stuff; but again, she's actually deadly serious. "I know that, given the financial restraints, it's hard to give younger writers the chance to write plays for bigger spaces. But if not, the skill is going to be lost. I've been writing since my teens, yet I still have no idea how to write a play for more than seven characters."

You could try a musical, I suggest. The National seems fond of them. "Yes," she sighs. "Except I don't feel any songs coming on."