The dramatist David Eldridge and director Rufus Norris make a formidable team. They began working together in 2000 at the Royal Court Theatre on Eldridge's award-winning Under the Blue Sky. They then joined forces on Festen, a stage adaptation of the Dogme movie, in which a dark family secret of sexual abuse is exposed at a 60th-birthday celebration. It earned Norris both the Evening Standard and the Critics' Circle best director awards.
I catch up with the pair during rehearsals for their latest project, Market Boy, which opens next Tuesday in the Olivier as part of this year's Travelex £10 season.
Fielding a cast of 30 actors, the piece is based on Eldridge's experiences as a teenager in the 1980s, when he led the kind of dual existence that is a godsend to a future dramatist. His days were split between playing the working-class scholarship boy at a posh Essex public school, and flogging stilettoes on a stall in Romford market. The Eighties were the decade when market values wormed their way into every aspect of life, "and in no place", Eldridge says, "was Thatcher more dearly cherished than she was in Romford market". So what could be more fitting as a metaphor for the Thatcher years, and who better qualified to bring it to life?
The piece has evolved over four years in workshops supervised by Norris at the National Theatre Studio, where the actors' input has been invaluable in building up the characters who populate the play's teeming canvas. This approach is well suited to the material. Markets are theatrical places because the traders themselves rely on powers of quick improvisation. "If you're trying to shift as many pairs of shoes as you can, you have to tune in to who the customers are," says Eldridge.
From Trevor, his handsome black boss and mentor, Eldridge picked up the art of making women feel better about themselves by being attentive. As for the impulse, "it's still in me now," he confesses, with a laugh. On the market, he was "gauche and scared as hell" to begin with, and it sounds as if some women enjoyed disconcerting the 13-year-old innocent. But, gradually, he learned how to bring a gratified blush to his customers' cheeks with his patter, and he stayed there, flogging shoes, until the week before he went to Exeter University, where his flair for improvisation can have done him no harm on his drama course.
"There was an early idea of doing the piece in Spitalfields Market," reveals Norris, when I ask if they'd ever thought of a promenade staging. "But David was very firm that he wants to bring the market into the National rather than take the National to the market." Eldridge feels that a promenade would create too literal a world and "drain away the metaphorical energy" of this gaudy circus of an environment.
I saw the last few minutes of a morning rehearsal for a scene in which a fight breaks out. From an initially objective perspective, the episode then shifted inside the head of the central character, Boy (played by Danny Worters), whose rite of passage the play charts. The market stalls wheeled and skidded around, re-configuring in obedience to his altered perception. To mount a glorified episode of EastEnders did not feel like the right way to celebrate the spirit of the place, Eldridge explains. Instead, presenting this world through the eyes of a teenager growing into a man "gives you permission to go where you like theatrically".
Norris and Eldridge were expecting Market Boy to be scheduled for 2007, "but Nick Hytner, in his wisdom, decided that the time for it is now," says Norris. It's the first play by a young (ie, early thirties) dramatist that Nicholas Hytner has programmed in the Olivier. In bringing the production forward, the NT's artistic director demonstrates his ever-sharp alertness to the zeitgeist. Eldridge's play could be seen as a kind of ribald, red-blooded working-class counterpart to Alan Hollinghurst's novel The Line of Beauty. Notwithstanding the social gulf between Kensington and Romford, both are morality tales in which the young protagonist is seduced by the go-getting glamour of the Eighties, depicted with all its disreputable allure intact.
Margaret Thatcher, of course, puts in a mythic appearance, representing Boy's "starry idea of the decade". She has become more important to the piece as Tony Blair has increasingly demonstrated that he is, in many respects, her continuation, Eldridge and Norris tell me. The former promises that this piece will blow "a gorgeous, fat, politically incorrect kiss" to a time when everything changed.
'Market Boy', National Theatre, London SE1 (020-7452 3000; www.nationaltheatre.org.uk), 6 June to 3 August
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