THEATRE / Making crime play the hard way: Caroline Donald talks to the authors of three new plays about writing on the wrong side of the tracks

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The Independent Culture
THE ELIZABETHAN and Jacobean dramatists were in there early; Porridge, The Sweeney, Minder, even Lovejoy have done it all before; yet the criminal underworld, with all its colour and cliches, continues to fascinate writers. The attraction is evident in three new plays, all of them from debut playwrights, which look at life on the wrong side of the law from very different angles.

For a novice, writing about crime offers extreme characters in extreme situations - a strongly coloured palate with which to paint. 'At school I liked Macbeth rather than Chekhov,' says Danny Miller, the 28-year-old author of Jack's Out, which opens at the Bush Theatre in London on Friday. 'I suppose that's because I didn't understand the Chekhov. It was a bit subtle for me,' he admits.

Miller's play is about a dangerous criminal who has just been released from prison, and explores the different reasons why those around him in the Brighton criminal fraternity fear him, even though he never appears on the stage. 'I like things that are black and white, and the feeling that anything can happen,' says Miller. 'You haven't got many escape routes as you can't say 'OK, the game's up, I've had enough of this. I'm going to the police.' The situation has to be worked out or you might get killed.'

Rod Williams's No Remission has just finished at the Lyric Hammersmith, where it received universally good reviews. Using the rather creaky dramatic device of a prison riot, he brings two murderers and a bank-robber together in one cell. 'This is very much a situation in extremis,' says Williams, and it creates a potentially dramatic environment: 'The characters would have nothing to do with each other outside prison, or even in prison, as 'lifers' don't live together.' As the play unfolds, it becomes apparent that, as in Jack's Out, each man has a secret he does not want the others to discover. 'What interested me as much as the prison environment, were the reasons why the three men had ended up there,' says Williams. Murderers, after all, always have at least that one interesting thing about them.

Where Miller and Williams use dramatic situations as frames in which to build their characters, Rod Dungate's Playing By the Rules, which opens at the Birmingham Rep Studio next week, comes across more as a political and social argument. It is an account of the everyday lives of six rent boys, and came about after Dungate had read a report by Sergeant Keith Donovan of West Midlands Police about male prostitution. 'I thought: 'That's it] This is the subject I am going to write about.' It was as immediate as that,' says Dungate.

'I think I can tell the truth in an acting space better than a documentary or a report can,' he continues. 'The audience has in front of them, real-life human beings.' Dungate's play contains much ripping of zippers and sexually graphic language, which he insists are integral to the play. 'You can't really talk about the boys without putting that in. I hope the way that we stage the play will remove any element of prurience from it though. We are talking about 15-year-old boys who get in cars with men and wank them off or give them blow jobs. If we are not up front about it and face that, we are not going to come to terms with anything in the way of a debate.'

The debates Dungate is hoping to air include the arguments about the age of consent for homosexuals and the state of local council care. He is also an advocate for legalised male brothels, in order to stop little boys being caught up in vice. When he was writing the play, he spent a lot of time talking to former rent boys and the various charities that help them. The punters who pay the boys in the play are supposed pillars of the community - a vicar, a solicitor, a councillor, and even the police themselves - but Dungate says he can justify everything in the play, however controversial. Other subjects he wants to write about are the incidence of suicide among young people in penal institutions and the rise of Fascism and racism in Britain.

A newcomer to theatre (he claims he only became interested in it after meeting an actress in Los Angeles), Danny Miller does not aspire to such high ideals in Jack's Out. 'It's an old-fashioned thriller,' he says. His material stems from his own background in Brighton. His father was a bookie and he himself spent time as an antiques dealer and a stall holder in Bermondsey Market; his grasp of criminal argot is based on his own observations of shady characters.

'I wanted to get away from the 'You're nicked, get off my manor' stuff of The Bill. That's a bit bog-standard. That's why I set it in Brighton rather than London, as I knew the language would be a bit more colourful.' All the same, criminal cliches are difficult to avoid: take, for instance, Chunky, a Jewish fence, who brags that he's 'never done a day's bird in my life', calls the police 'Bogeys' and mutters 'criminal innit?'.

The nearest Rod Williams got to a lifer's cell when he was researching No Remission was a trip to Wormwood Scrubs. His approach was rather more bookish than either Dungate or Miller's, reading Dostoevsky and Victor Serge's 1915 Men in Prison, as well as Jimmy Boyle and John McVicar's accounts of their time in prison. Jim Fellen's book Nine Murderers and Me, published in the 1950s, inspired Williams with an old lag's wisdom - reflected in lines like 'I've never known a bird who has stuck to a man doing life' (in the play, Kevin's girlfriend turns out to be the town tart). But, says Williams, 'No Remission was about one-tenth research and the rest was about thinking it through and researching thecharacters.

'The psychology of crime was of great interest to me,' he continues, 'and the way the mind copes with remorse and the awful stigma of murder. I was also interested in bank-robbers, as they have so much front and bravado - their job consists of scaring people to hand over money, so they are often extremely colourful characters.' Victor, the bank-robber in the play, is also a grass, 'so he is an actor, too, because he is a complete coward. As soon as the plug is pulled on him, he turns to jelly.'

Although coming from different angles - a thriller, a social indictment and a psychological drama - there is a common thread between the three plays other than black humour and a concern with illegal acts. In each, women come off badly. Miller's Bobby, girlfriend of Jack, is bumped off, Dungate's alcoholic Julie is left by her boyfriend for another of the boys, and Williams's offstage, and presumed saintly, girlfriend Christabel turns out to be a no-good Jezebel. On the wrong side of the law, it seems, it's a man's world. Criminal, innit?

'Jack's Out' opens at the Bush Theatre on 4 Sept (081-743 3388). 'Playing by the Rules' opens at the Birmingham Rep Studio on 9 Sept (021-236 4455).

(Photographs omitted)