Theatre / Dancing alone in the dark: Claire Dowie's new work, Death and Dancing, is about a love affair between a lesbian and a homosexual. Caroline Donald talked to her about sexuality, gender and designer labelling

Claire Dowie dancing the can-can is not an image that springs readily to mind. At 35, she is tall, crop-haired and gaunt and looks like the sort of person who has to be reminded to eat. Sitting in the cafe of the Battersea Arts Centre before rehearsals for her latest play, Death and Dancing, she fidgets and looks like a gawky schoolboy, albeit one who smokes constantly. She is wearing jeans and a battered denim jacket: add a pair of Doc Martins and you could see her in a radical dance group such as DV8; but a frilly can-can skirt and a plastic smile? Difficult.

Dowie left school in Birmingham at 16 and joined a dance troupe that toured 'very refined' strip clubs in Europe doing 'cutsey' routines, including the can-can, after the strippers had left the stage. 'I stopped because they wanted glamour instead of dance and that disappointed me,' she says, 'All the men used to get off on us virginal girls which, politically speaking, isn't too good]'

A stint on the more conducively politically correct comedy circuit followed, but then Dowie found that she wanted to develop her material beyond a 20-minute routine. 'I was telling Colin (Colin Watkeys, her producer and director) this idea and he said, 'Why don't you make a play out of it?' I just laughed in his face because I don't even have O-levels]' In the end she took him seriously, and the result has been a series of one-person plays, the best known being Why Is John Lennon Wearing A Skirt? which won a London Fringe Award in 1991.

Death and Dancing is a departure from the monologue format, in that Dowie is collaborating with Mark Pinkosh, a member of the Hawaiian company Starving Artists, which brought Holding Back the Ocean to the London fringe last year. She has not departed, however, from the theme that has underpinned her work both as stand-up and playwright, that of human sexuality.

'I don't think you can talk about humans without talking about gender, or sexuality, or clothes even. Because I am obsessed with humans, I am interested in sexual politics - I'm not interested in sex really - and I think this is how we are all controlled.

'The play is about two characters who try to be themselves rather than what they are supposed to be, or what they think they ought to be, or what people tell them to be. They are trying to get rid of culture,' says Dowie. In other words, a gay man meets a lesbian and is thrown into confusion because he finds himself fancying her. The woman, played by Dowie, tries to teach him to reject his own self-labelling. 'Ever since I can remember, I have hated people assuming what I am. I really resent people telling me what to do,' she says.

Dowie, who has endured her fair share of labelling in her time ('stridently feminist stand-up' was the one most readily attached to her during years on the comedy circuit, usually with the rider 'uncompromising'), has used this as the basis of her work. Adult Child/Dead Child is about an unloved and disturbed child; John Lennon is about a woman who resents skirts and all they stand for. What is remarkable about her work, more than the well-worn territory of sex and gender, is that performances are so convincing that you presume the characters she plays are Dowie herself.

'It's not autobiographical per se,' says Dowie, 'though there is a lot in it that applies to me, I suppose. I would say that John Lennon was about 60 per cent made up.' Dowie may share the John Lennon character's dislike of skirts, but the child abuse and neglect portrayed in Adult Child/Dead Child and Cat and Mouse are products of her imagination rather than her own childhood. 'I just get the feeling of a character - it's like having a love affair with them - and I become obsessed with finding out about them.'

Despite her feel for character and commitment to performance, Dowie does not consider herself to be an actress as such. 'Acting just doesn't make sense to me. I could never go into a room for an audition - I haven't the nerve to do it. I couldn't play someone I didn't want to be.' It is rather as if her characters are like the imaginary friend Benji in Adult Child / Dead Child: they live in her head and speak through her mouth, albeit in scripted form.

However, with Death and Dancing Dowie takes a step closer to more conventional theatre in that she has written the main part for another person ('it gives me seven minutes for a fag break'). She wrote the outline for the play and then took it over to Hawaii, at the invitation of Starving Artists. A lot of rewriting with Pinkosh followed, and no time for sunbathing. Despite her desire to break away from conventional sexual thinking, the great mysteries she found herself pondering are age-old and universal: 'What do men think? I don't understand men. Men aren't emotional at all]'

Writing for someone else, and a member of the opposite sex at that, has opened Dowie's eyes to the possibilities of the theatre. 'I love it. Any idea you have, you can do - you can even pretend to kill people and it is not important. You can be anything, and afterwards you can go back to the bar and have a good laugh. I'm not going to be precious about it - I mean, I'm not going to change the world.

'I just do what I like and I am surprised that people come. It amazes me] That's what theatre should be - you should just experiment. Let's just try it and see what happens.'

She laughs nervously and reaches for another cigarette. It's hard to imagine her plucking up the courage to walk on to an empty stage. 'I know the set up,' she says, 'I'm performing to an audience. I'm in control. It's life that I can't handle.'

Death and Dancing opens tomorrow at BAC, London SW11 (071-223 2223)

(Photograph omitted)