Playwright Richard Bean on transgender characters, never cheating and new snooker drama The Nap

Playwright Richard Bean has never shied away from incendiary issues. So what’s drawn him to, er, snooker? Holly Williams finds out

The moral reputation of sport has taken something of a kicking recently. From Fifa corruption to doping in athletics, tennis match-fixing and last week’s Maria Sharapova drugs revelation, scandal is rife.

So, when you hear playwright Richard Bean – who took aim at phone-hacking in Great Britain and multiculturalism in England People Very Nice – is writing a show about snooker and match-fixing, you might assume it’ll be an extremely cynical satire.

Not so. The Nap – staged in Sheffield’s Crucible theatre, also home to the snooker World Championships – may be a comedy thriller, but it has at its heart the plight of an upright, highly moral young snooker player named Dylan, played by film-star Jack O’Connell (Starred Up, Unbroken).

Despite being surrounded by money-making chancers and criminals, Dylan tries to hang on to his honour. 

“I have played an enormous amount of sport in my life – my main game is cricket, but I’ve also played a lot of football, and I can honestly say with my hand on my heart that I have never cheated once in any game in my life,” says the 59-year-old playwright.

“It is something that I feel passionate about, the integrity of sport. A play like this can make you think about what we value about our collective existence – any society requires people to live by certain rules and principles, and sport is an extension of that.”

Why snooker? The idea came from the director Richard Wilson, who wanted to stage a play about snooker in the home of the game. Sounds like a no brainer – but there was one major issue that troubled Bean.

“Richard was always very clear he wanted the snooker table to be centre stage. And I’d say, ‘yeah, but actors can’t play snooker – it will look bloody rubbish’. And he’d say, ‘well, that’s your problem ...’.”

Then Bean alighted on the idea of match-fixing: suddenly, an actor only needs to be able to lose at snooker, against a better player – and for this, they’ve employed a real-life snooker professional: John Astley.

Bean has spent plenty of time potting balls lately in snooker halls in Stratford-upon-Avon – he divides his time between London and there, where his partner Erica Whyman is deputy director of the RSC – but playing against Astley in rehearsals blew him away. “He’s extraordinary. It’s phenomenal when you see pure talent: he just clears the table.”

Astley has been training O’Connell too – the game really will be played live onstage. And it’s hoped The Nap will appeal to a sports-loving crowd. “[We’re] hoping to attract a snooker audience, to show them you don’t have to get dressed up or stand in the bar and talk bollocks in order to be a ‘theatre appreciator’.”

Bean – who began his career as a stand-up comic – is known for writing plays with a high gag count, from the mega-hit farce One Man, Two Guvnors to the musical adaptation of Made in Dagenham. “In my own career, I’ve put entertaining the audience ahead of some other … play-writing goals,” he acknowledges. 

But he’s also got a reputation for being controversial: a media furore greeted his 2009 play England People Very Nice at the National Theatre; dealing with the various waves of immigration in east London, it was accused of peddling racial stereotypes. Another work sympathised with climate-change deniers. 

But this reputation isn’t really deserved, he claims. “People think I get a lot of stick and am controversial, but I’ve never properly understood that. It was reported that there was a big campaign against England People Very Nice – it was nonsense.

"There was a Bangladeshi playwright in Bethnal Green who objected to the play, largely because I was writing about Bangladeshis and I’m not Bangladeshi, and that’s a legitimate thing to say. I mean, he went a bit too far saying the play was racist and should be shut down … and then The Guardian went for me. But I always enjoy that – you know you’re getting something right if The Guardian’s having a crack at you.”

Not provocative at all, then … still, he can be surprisingly cautious, as when we start to discuss phone-hacking, and how depressing it is that the public seem to have lost interest. “Let’s not talk about that – there’s so many things I’d like to say but I can’t,” he says, presumably for legal reasons. 

He loved writing Great Britain, however, and the quick turnaround that only theatre allows. “One of the most fabulous experiences [of my career] was opening Great Britain the night after the judgment on Rebekah Brooks. Film can’t do that, television can’t do that.” He even wrote two different endings, depending on whether Brooks was acquitted or not. Was he glad about the version they got to use? 

A pause. “For the greater good of humanity, I wish we hadn’t been using the version that we had. Theatrically, I was glad.” 

Bean also recognises that he’s insulated from the more modern media cycles of outrage and offence: he doesn’t do social media. “I learnt very quickly that if you go on the internet to see what people think about your play, you’ll be on Beachy Head within 10 minutes ….” And there is one aspect of The Nap that, he observes with a sort of phlegmatic resignation, will probably ruffle feathers: one of the main characters is a transgender gangster and beauty salon owner, named Waxy Chuff. She’s played by a cisgender woman, actress Louise Gold. 

“No doubt there’ll be some outrage that we have a transgender character that’s not played by a transgender actress. We offered it to a transgender [actress] and she turned us down; we auditioned maybe seven or eight others and we didn’t feel any of them could carry the authority that Waxy needs.”

Bean’s plays always feature jokes that rile the right-on – but Waxy’s transition is not, he insists, played for laughs. “There are no jokes about the fact that she became a woman – and that was important. I had a transgender friend, male to female, and she died about six months ago.

"She was on my mind when I wrote Waxy. Her name is funny, but it’s not a joke about being transgender, it’s a joke about bikini waxing.”

The Nap is not the first time Bean’s written about sport – The English Game used cricket to explore Britishness – and he’s not the only one to make a drama out of it: see footie plays such as Patrick Marber’s The Red Lion, Bend it Like Beckham, and Anders Lustgarten’s adaptation of David Peace’s The Damned United. Are there parallels between watching sport and a play? 

Bean thinks so, referencing David Mamet’s theory that a play should be like a really tense match: “The team you’re rooting for get knocked down, it looks impossible, then they get it back – it’s the structure of drama.

"I guess what’s different is you can have extraordinarily boring games where you don’t really blame either side – both teams put out strong defences, you forgive them.” Bean pauses and adds with a hint of the provocative spirit he claims not to have: “But when you see a really boring play, you do not forgive anyone.”

‘The Nap’ is at Sheffield Theatres until 2 April