I wrote the play Hard Feelings – which will be revived tonight by Defibrillator Theatre at the Finborough – in early 1982, in the aftermath of the previous year's riots which had torn a great hole in the national fabric and shaken the government to act. The Scarman Report was commissioned, Sus laws were repealed, PACE was introduced and the impact of mass unemployment was assessed.
Like many other writers at the time, I felt a powerful urge to explore the causes of these violent and shocking riots, but I didn't want to approach the subject in a dry, analytical way – in any case, the causes were pretty obvious to most people: the government's economic policies had resulted in a huge increase in unemployment, and the improvements in social mobility most of us had taken for granted in the post-war period were being rolled back, just as inequality was once again on the rise.
Meanwhile, with the activities of the National Front throughout the preceding decade stoking racial tensions, and inner-city deprivation seemingly becoming an accepted fact of life, something malignant had been incubating for years.
And yet, among the comfortably-off, especially those of my generation, there was a confusing lack of engagement with what was happening, almost as if different sections of society were drifting inexorably apart without even noticing. But it seemed to me that far from not noticing, many people were consciously ignoring the social and political consequences of government policies. By the end of the decade, we saw that the "individualism" being encouraged from 1979 onwards would change the UK, if not for ever, then for the foreseeable future, but at this point we were groping our way through the birth-pangs of this movement which would have such far-reaching historic consequences.
So I opted to write a play about those members of my generation I knew at first-hand – Oxford graduates – and the ones I chose to highlight were the hedonistic, metropolitan free-floaters, for whom life was already mapped out. They would land the jobs people of their class and education were guaranteed, and they knew they were pretty much immune to the economic and social horrors being visited on the less privileged. When reality loomed, they simply looked the other way, while their euphoria/hangover lifestyle reflected the realities of boom and bust economics.
Is Hard Feelings still relevant today? I believe so. It hasn't been performed in London for nearly 25 years but the sort of spiteful, inexplicable cruelty of some of the characters is visible every day now on social media; the squeezed middle is still able to look the other way when it suits them, as when the vulnerable or disabled are stigmatised and punished; unemployment is worse now than at any time since that first great assault on manufacturing more than 30 years ago; social mobility is a thing of the past; inequality is now fully institutionalised; racial tensions are still being exacerbated by the far-right; the state still bristles, armed to the teeth against the terrorist threat and seeks to curtail civil liberties. Most of all, though, we seem to be a nation desperately trying to ignore the reality that the forces that brought about the desperation of the early 1980s now have us firmly by the throat and won't stop squeezing any time soon.
Despite the heavy nature of this interpretation of the situation, Hard Feelings is still best described as a comedy – a serious one – that tries to expose human folly through laughter. As a playwright I've always aimed to engage the audience's brain and stir its heart at the same time, and I hope that 30 years after its premiere, this play still does that.
'Hard Feelings' opens at the Finborough Theatre, London SW10 (0844 847 1652; finboroughtheatre.co.uk) from tonight