Theatre: Street life

Mick Mahoney was a drifter - he sold dodgy goods, did a spell in boob for pickpocketing, lived with paraffins. His latest play 'Swaggers' is rich with the language of his experiences. But it's really a love story... By Adrian Turpin
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The Independent Culture
It's easy to see how Mick Mahoney once got the tag "the hooligan playwright". By 17, he'd been to borstal. By 21, he had staged his first play. By 23, he'd written a notorious magazine article headlined "Dressed to Kill", in which he gave an insider's view of thuggery on the terraces at Millwall. By 24, he'd had a play commissioned by the National Theatre studio, a story based on his time selling dodgy goods while standing on a milk-crate in Oxford Street. And by 29, after a hatful of successful works that borrowed heavily from his life, he had pissed a promising future away in pubs and clubs, and offended almost every contact he'd made in the theatre.

He had lived fast, died young in career terms, and joined all the other corpses of talents who got lost along the way. And until October, when his new play, Swaggers, gifted him a second chance, things looked like they'd stay that way. "Swaggers has the unmistakable smell of genuine London villains," Time Out wrote, comparing it favourably with Jez Butterworth's West End gangster drama Mojo, and giving it an award for being "the best play and production to be seen on the Fringe all year". After a sell-out run at Islington's Old Red Lion, it starts a three-week run at BAC tonight.

Sitting in a cafe tantalisingly close to his old Oxford Street haunts, it is hard to imagine 37-year-old Mahoney as a hooligan anything, not least because, with his ridiculously large greatcoat, jowly chops, tousled hair and perpetually down-set mouth, he resembles the genial-looking character actor Timothy Spall. He even sounds similar. He is teetotal, married with kids. But that hasn't stopped him returning to the world of small-time ne'er-do-wells for Swaggers.

The play's pivotal character is Moony, a thirtysomething criminal who has just been released from Parkhurst, and gets a job making pirate music tapes in a Charing Cross Road "swag shop", the kind of outlet where they pile them high, sell them cheap, and don't worry too much about legal niceties like tax. Just the kind of place, in fact, in which the writer himself worked one Christmas.

"I think Swaggers is about this working-class guy who thinks his life is over," Mahoney says when pushed. "He's lived his life to a certain code, and for what? There's no pay-off, no dividend, and then he gets a second chance. That criminal thing, unless you're very successful, is a young man's game."

In the play, Moony's been in jail for years for a violent crime. Mahoney's own three months in a Kent detention centre stemmed from the more minor offence of pickpocketing. "A consequence of hanging around Oxford Street fly-pitching is that you used to get lots of that up there," he recalls. "I was very young. I drifted into it really. The whole Dickensian side of pickpocketing appealed to me. Like Oliver Twist...

"When I was in Oxford Street, it was like living in Damon Runyon land. We'd sit in this caff opposite Marlborough Street magistrate court, and there'd be all these guys talking about where they'd gone last night, how much they'd spent, what girls they'd been with. The funny thing is I wasn't there for the money. It just seemed so interesting."

It was 1977, the year of the Queen's Silver Jubilee, when he finally got sent down for an attempted theft in Sloane Square. "All that 'short sharp shock thing' was going on. We marched everywhere. You'd go in there really unfit and you'd come out like a marine. I was really bad at marching. I had to go back at night and do special marching lessons."

He describes all this with a similar mixture of nostalgia and regret to that shown by Moony in Swaggers. "I'd wanted to go to detention centre when I was 13 but by the time I got there I didn't. But it was short enough not to be too bad, and there was something hard about it, like, 'I got a DC'."

Did it stop him re-offending? "When I'd done it, that was enough. Anyway, I wasn't really much of a thief. It never really appealed to me."

If Mahoney has managed to break free of crime, he has had less success when he has tried to stop using it as a background for his work. His last play before Swaggers, Shift in 1995, featured a middle-class white woman and a black Tube worker who share a flat but not a bed. It was supposed to be about "how far we're getting away from nature", and the audiences stayed away in droves. Now the playwright has accepted that lowlife settings are what he does best, even if he is (rightly) wary about his work being described as "crime drama".

"It upsets me slightly. The interesting thing about my characters isn't that they've shot people or whatever. It's what motivates them to be like that. Basically, Swaggers is a love story that uses that kind of world as a backdrop."

Perhaps what binds Mahoney most tightly to that milieu is its language, which he uses to dazzling effect. The play is chock-a-block with slang, old and new, rhyming and not: boob (prison), apple (score), almonds (socks), chaveys (kids), paraffins (tramps), Richard (bird). Anyone can appropriate a couple of slang words - few, though, with such an awareness of their nuances. "It's an odd thing, people speaking like that, because when it's well done, it's really natural. But, a lot of the time, the person using slang has heard someone else and they're testing it out. It sounds cringy," he says, drawing attention to a phenomenon that Swaggers neatly exploits. "You know how the aristocracy used to change the rules of what was correct and what wasn't as soon as the middle classes caught on? People who use slang naturally are like that. They have their own way of speaking and then, when they hear it on the telly, or whatever, they move on."

Mahoney himself has moved on in the past few months. The phone has started to ring again. He's talking with publishers about a book and there's the ghost of an idea for a new play ("I want to write about a funeral"). Some things never change, though - like the Lacoste shirt and the Rolex he's wearing. "Real or fake?" I enquire. "Oh, most definitely real. That kind of thing was very important in the circles I used to move in," he replies. "I guess there's still a little bit of the flash git in me"n

'Swaggers' is at Battersea Arts Centre, London SW11 (0171-223 2223) to 9 Mar