Peter Straughan: A playwright of irresistible farce

Peter Straughan 'can write parts that actors will fight to play', wrote Rhoda Koenig after seeing his London debut Bones last week. He tells her why black comedy trumps tragedy
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The Independent Culture

In Peter Straughan's hilarious new comedy, a reluctant member of the gormless band who have kidnapped Reggie Kray explains something important to another, who is getting ideas above his station. "You are not a gangster," he says, slowly and clearly. "You are a schmuck."

In Straughan's other plays as well, the characters are schmucks, schleps, schmendricks and screw-ups for whom the name of "wanker" is but a pale and feeble shadow of reality. Ruben, who masterminds (another wildly inaccurate term) the snatch in Bones, is so excited by the proximity of the great man that he removes Kray's blindfold and relates his own life story, with real names. Ruben's brother is incandescent, but Ruben airily assures him: "You don't have to worry... We're like one big family now."

Another Newcastle nobody, Ed in Fetish (his only serious relationship is with a pair of high-heeled shoes), tells us how he sends messages to an attentive but indifferent God. "I went up Clayton Street and took a right up Westmoreland Road and then a right along Waterloo Street and then back up again and back on to Westmoreland and then up and right on to Blenheim, so that I'd spelled out this giant big E on the streets, and then I went down Sunderland Street and along Waterloo and curved all the way round the back of the Tyne theatre, up Westgate and back along Blenheim, so that was a huge D and if anyone was watching from above they would at least know my name... I was on another walk and I'd worked out how to spell out 'Hello there' up at the Haymarket, but I only got up to the first L and I felt knackered."

In the forthcoming Noir, George is surprised to hear Ray call himself a private eye: "I thought you were a security guard at Fenwicks." Ray puts him straight: "That's a day job." Engaged by George to keep tabs on his wife, Ray tails the wrong woman, who, after a few minutes, walks up to him and asks for help: "I think I'm being followed." Ray's day job, however, allows him more scope for vanquishing the enemies of society. Cornering a hapless shoplifter, Ray pushes his head into a toilet, threatens him with castration, and sends him on his way, shouting after him splendidly: "Tell your friends – do not fuck with Fenwicks!" Straughan says: "We were thinking of putting that on the poster, but..."

Straughan, 32, wasn't very happy about growing up in Gateshead, just across the Tyne from Newcastle. "I wanted to come from anywhere that was someplace that writers came from. I didn't know of any writers that came from Gateshead." Since moving to London three years ago, however, he has been busy writing about his home town, whose image has grown clearer with absence. Straughan's family – his father was a millwright – experienced the tragedy that befell all the cities of the industrial North. "It was terrible," he says, "to see someone whose whole life was wrapped up in his work have that work taken away from him."

Not only the workers of Newcastle but the city itself experienced a radical change of identity. The rather unconvincing transformation into a place to drink, dance and go shopping was, for all its deplorable character, liberating, Straughan says. "If a city isn't sure of its own identity any more, it can't very well have a decent stab at defining you." He no longer felt confined by the prevailing view, during his childhood, that one couldn't be working class and educated ("You got beaten up at school for doing too well") and that the only careers for the ambitious were pop star, footballer and gangster.

Straughan acted for a while ("I was terrible"), left his literature course at Newcastle University to play guitar with a punk band for five years, and worked in a music shop until his plays were accepted by Live Theatre, where Bones was first seen in 1999. Noir will debut in a Northern Stage production in May. His movie script, Five Psychopaths go to Vancouver, should start production later this year, he says. "That's the title I was given, but now I think they're going to Nebraska, though there will still be snow." Its scenario is reminiscent of Fargo, which he greatly admires (as he does all the Coen brothers' work), but much more lurid. "I thought: 'No one's ever told the story from the psychopaths' point of view." Many gory corpses into the tale, one of them considers the carnage and says: "It's a sick world when we get to be the good guys."

As a teenager, Straughan left the Catholicism in which he was reared, but it still haunts his work. "Catholicism gives you a sense of otherness. It's aware of a conflict between reality and another reality." In each of his plays a character, dissatisfied with his lot, tries to lose and find himself in another persona, often disastrously. "I'm not saying people can't remake themselves, can't ever grow far from their roots, but those roots have to be taken into the equation. When Ruben tries to change his identity, it's not that his impulse is damnable, but that he's chosen the wrong path."

Not all of Straughan's plays are concerned with deluded northern low-lifes. The characters in When We Were Queens are in the suspension-of-disbelief business, but these actors are Elizabethan ones, and their immersion in Shakespeare's poetry leads one of them to know great love and sacrifice offstage. That play's sweetness is echoed in Straughan's surrealist play, The Ghost of Federico Garcia Lorca Which Can Also Be Used As a Table. The comedy in that one is, as befits its subject, more ferocious. Lorca is about to kill himself when his mother enters with news that the Spanish Republic has been declared: "Federico, this is no time to be shaving!"

By cramming farce and horror into the same narrow bed, Straughan has been accused of immorality and bad play-writing. On the second charge, he answers: "I don't think comedy and violence are necessarily at odds, but it has to be the right kind of humour, the vaudevillian type, for example, that I used in Bones. Comedy can actually heighten the impact of violence, and the violence can make the laughter uneasy." As for the moral aspect, he says, he's always found tragedy "slightly dishonest. It gives life grandeur and says there's dignity in death". His daydreaming characters show the perils of following a romantic fantasy, he says, but only through confronting the farcical nature of reality can one see if there is any dignity beyond it. "I think it's the only way to find redemption. Not," he says, smiling, "that I want to sound poncing about it."

'Bones', Hampstead Theatre, London NW3, to 13 April (020-7722 9301)