Saturday car-washing job inspired £3,500 prize play

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The Independent Culture

Artistic inspiration can come from the most unlikely of places. At least, that was what Matt Charman found in his humdrum job of washing cars.

Artistic inspiration can come from the most unlikely of places. At least, that was what Matt Charman found in his humdrum job of washing cars.

During his stint at A&B Autos in his home town of Horsham, West Sussex, the 25-year-old English graduate wrote a play, A Night At The Dogs , drawing on the characters and scenes he encountered in the car-wash business.

And, last night, his story about mechanics who buy a greyhound was named the winner of the oldest arts prize in Britain, the 2004 Verity Bargate Award.

The prize, awarded for the best new work by an unknown or little-known playwright, will see Charman's play being put on at the Soho Theatre in London. He will also receive a payment of £3,500. Yesterday, the writer recalled how the live-wire atmosphere at the car wash had helped him create his award-winning work. "It was a weird and amazing place to work," he said.

"My brother, Greg, introduced me to the garage because he worked there on Saturdays, and he finds this hilarious because he always thought that someone should write it down."

While the play's humour comes from Charman's own experience in the workshop, his play takes a darker turn when, on the night of the first greyhound race, a mechanic makes a shocking allegation against one of his colleagues.

Simmering in the background are the topical issues of paternity rights, the Fathers 4 Justice campaign and paedophilia.

One of the judges, Jessica Dromgoole, the BBC's head of new writing, hailed the play as "a triumph of instinctive theatre writing".

Abigail Morris, the artistic director of the Soho Theatre Company, said it was exciting to find such a great play by a complete unknown. "It's very funny, with a really ferocious wit. The dialogue is really sparkling and sparky and he has a wonderful intuitive sense of structure."

Charman has moved to London to try to build a career in theatre, writing for a theatre website and working with a producer.

"It is the only playwriting award aimed absolutely at new writers," Ms Morris said. "Through the Verity Bargate Award we discover outstanding new plays and identify the playwrights of the future."

Twenty readers spent 1,000 hours whittling down the 700 entries to a shortlist of just seven, which also included Moses and Nina Raine, the children of the poet Craig Raine.

Extracts from all the works were performed at the Soho Theatre yesterday by actors including Susannah York, Clare Goose and Kwame Kwei-Armah, the Casualty star turned writer who was also a judge.

The judging panel also included Kate Bassett, the Independent on Sunday's theatre critic, and the playwrights Peter Gill and Tanika Gupta.