In January 2011, Tom Wells hadn't yet won two major awards for his play The Kitchen Sink; it hadn't yet become a smash hit, and earned him the critics' praise as one of the UK's most promising young writers. He was just an anonymous 25-year-old playwright from East Yorkshire, feeling rather out of place living in east London, and embarking on a romantic comedy set among a gay five-a-side football team in Hull.
One day, he went out of his council-estate flat with a hat on. "It was a sort of stripy beanie," he remembers. "It was probably the least gay thing about me." Nonetheless, a group of boys nearby started mocking it: a gay hat, on a gay man. They took it off him. And then, as Wells walked away, he heard feet running up behind him. "They pulled me into an alley and they beat me up," he says. "It was a shit day, definitely."
To Wells, this didn't come as much of a shock. "As a gay man, you experience low-level homophobia on a day-to-day basis," he points out. "People take the piss or imitate you or just use gay as a slang adjective, even your friends. It's not weird. It's the accepted form of prejudice. So to go from that to some teenagers kicking you in – it's not a massive leap, actually." If anything surprised him about the experience, it was the fact that other people didn't see it coming. "I think," he says carefully, "that the world's a bit more homophobic than you realise if you're straight."
The experience immediately politicised his work. He had already had a notion that one of the members of the football team, Geoff, would be beaten up, but now that plot point became central. "Actually, it got so politicised it was boring. I had to remember that I didn't want to write about people who were victims, where sexuality was a thing that had damaged them. I don't think it needs to be now."
Nearly two years on, the resulting play, Jumpers for Goalposts, is about to begin a run at London's Bush Theatre after a successful tour and more glowing reviews. It wears its politics lightly: the violent incident was made less important in subsequent drafts, and first and foremost, it's a sweet-natured and very funny romantic comedy, in the tradition of Alan Bennett and John Godber, about two young gay men fumbling towards each other. Still, beneath its gently endearing exterior beats a stealthily subversive heart – which expresses its radical intentions by presenting gay lives as nothing other than varied, mainstream, and totally normal.
When I make this point to the fresh-faced, unassuming Wells, and say how much I liked the play, he is so paralysed by an instinct to modesty that he can barely speak, instead folding and refolding his arms into ever more unlikely configurations. "Gosh, yeah, I mean, maybe, thanks," he says. "I think I wanted to write a straightforward play that has gay people in it. The thing about just having one gay character is you can only tell one story, and actually there are lots of different stories.
"A lot of plays about gay people are about people in a bar, being hedonistic, not being supportive of each other, and that's not what my experience of being gay is like, it just isn't. What you write is the play you want to see in the world, and I thought, what would I have loved to see when I was 15? Yeah. I don't know."
He goes on like this throughout our hour together, repeatedly undercutting his acute intelligence by prefacing nearly every observation with "I don't know" or "maybe", only letting fly when he gets going, and then trailing off into a mumble again at the end. Often, saying someone is nice is a sort of placeholder compliment because there's nothing more substantial to say, but that's not the case with Wells: among his obvious merits as a writer, his warmth and compassion really is definitive.
"People say drama is conflict," Wells reflects, "so the easiest way to do that is to say, A completely disagrees with B, and they have it out a bit. But in my experience it's very rare that A completely disagrees with B. Mostly, A feels conflicted, and shows that in a roundabout way, sort of thing... I'm quite interested in family and community, and in that environment people try to do right by each other, I think."
He is, in some ways, an unlikely playwright. Though he long harboured ambitions of being a writer, he had no interest in the theatre when he was growing up; his creative outpourings mostly came in the back of his exercise books, although he does remember one excruciating assembly at the age of 14, where he read out a poem and had to deal with the ignominy of his voice breaking on the final line. Nor was he involved in drama at Oxford, where he noted a distinct social divide and worked very hard indeed. "My cousins were the first people in my family who went to university," he says. "No one had told us what you should do, like it doesn't matter if you get a 2.1 and not a First, so I just tried really really hard academically. I never thought to do the other stuff."
He planned to write novels, and only joined the scheme that got him into theatre after university because it was free. As it turns out, though, he had discovered his passion. Perhaps not by coincidence, Jumpers for Goalposts is set, like all his other work, in his native East Yorkshire. Today, Wells, who grew up a farmer's son in a small village (he came out, untraumatically, at 16 or 17 – "it was probably quite obvious, I liked Sylvanian families, and I didn't really like farming") is both expert and exile. "I write with an accent," he says firmly. "I don't think that's going to change. But I did feel when I came back from uni like I could view life at home with a tiny bit more distance."
Still, he expects to move back one day. He rings his parents every day, and writes to his grandmother once a week. London, he says, feels temporary: like Oxford, a slightly colder, more alienated place than home. For now, though, his success is making it difficult – a playwright needs to be where the action is. I wonder what he'd like to end up doing, and he is briefly paralysed again, then says "Maybe… just keep going... Yeah, hopefully keep going like this. That would be lovely."
'Jumpers for Goalposts', Bush Theatre, London W12 (020 8743 5050) to 4 JanuaryReuse content