THEATRE / The Comedy of Connection: British playwriting has been in decline for years. Irving Wardle argues that a renaissance is due

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TWO PROMISING dates in the next few weeks are the West End openings of Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing (Donmar, 30 Mar) and Terry Johnson's Dead Funny (Vaudeville, 6 Apr). A little further ahead is Lesley Bruce's Keyboard Skills (Nuffield, Southampton, 19 May). I am not sticking my neck out in recommending these shows, as they are among the most successful off-West End productions of the past year. They have been enjoyed by small audiences. Now they will be seen by larger ones.

Perhaps this is no more than a lucky accident, but at least it is a move in the right direction. British playwriting is often said to be in a state of decline. That is unfair. There is no shortage of good writing. The trouble is that it tends to appear only on studio stages. Good new plays, well designed and well cast, crop up in almost embarrassing profusion at places like the Hampstead, Tricycle and Bush theatres.

Then they run for a few weeks and vanish without trace. This is why the new writers of the past 10 years compare so unfavourably with those of 20 years ago. For reasons not all of their own making, their work seldom breaks through to main-stage production. Even on main stages, of course, drama remains a minority art. But when Osborne and Pinter arrived on the scene, even in smallish houses like the Royal Court and the Duchess, they had an impact on the public out of all proportion to the size of their physical audience. This does not happen in studios. Only a stage of a certain magnitude can become a sounding board.

At first sight, for instance, Pinter seemed a text-book example of a minority writer. After The Birthday Party in 1957, I remember campaigning for him in Encore magazine in absolute certainty that my cult idol stood no chance of becoming a commercial property. Had his work been seen only in the little theatre clubs of the time, I could well have been right. At their best, tiny stages can be incomparably truthful, but as a general rule, they give artists a softer option. It is easier to succeed on a small stage. Without putting it to the test, there is no way of telling whether or not a play that works for an audience of 200 will also work for one of 800.

This is not only a question of performance style. More important is the fact that enlarging the space means exchanging a group of interested individuals for that anonymous creature, the public. Pleasing that many-headed beast never was a simple matter, but seldom has it been harder than during the socially divisive changes of the past 10 years. And the reluctance of managements to take a risk on large-scale work has been more than matched by the readiness of playwrights to opt for the small scale. Hence the spread of ghetto drama and plays of private life. Hence a generation of writers taking a stand on their own little patch of experience and ignoring the social wilderness where nobody feels at home or understands what's gone wrong. Back in the 1960s, people used to talk

unblushingly about the writer's 'vision', and there is still a strong public appetite for anyone who writes as if he or she knows best - even if that means taking the will for the deed. Witness the Royal National Theatre's packed houses for David Hare's The Absence of War. Among Hare's juniors, though, it is the pattern to avoid editorialising about the state of Britain and settle for what they know at first hand, even if that means never escaping the pubs and prefabs of the fringe. But three of them - Harvey, Johnson and Bruce - have now escaped.

Perhaps that's a melodramatic way of describing the coincidence of three modest transfers - particularly in the case of Johnson, already a Royal Court star and successful screenwriter who has now come through with a whale of a hit. I mention him because Dead Funny offers one conspicuous example among others of a changing approach to theatrical story-telling. The play examines marital impotence through the medium of stand-up comedy. There is no apparent connection between the two subjects, but Johnson combines them in such a way that each energises the other. As he puts it, the piece consists of 'two ideas thrown together at high velocity'. The effect is to sustain a high level of invention and leave you in doubt until the last minute of how the story will end.

Story-telling is a moral act: a fact

insufficiently acknowledged by the playwrights of the past decade - particularly by women writers, who often seem to disdain plot as a patriarchal imposition. On other occasions you feel that you have been fraudulently lured in to see an old tale under a new title. Much as I admired Daniel Magee's Paddywack (now at the Cockpit), it made the heart sink to see so much beautifully individual workmanship finally flushed down the drain in an orgy of conventional Irish violence. A truthful first act is apt to be followed by a second in which some hoary old formula seizes the characters and hastens them into one of drama's common graves.

By contrast, consider my other two fringe exhibits. Harvey's Beautiful Thing is set on a housing estate where parental neglect and child-battering thrive alongside school truancy, pathetic compensation fantasies and homosexual guilt. All the signs point the teenage characters towards a sticky end. But they are so fully realised and resilient that they resist disaster; and what begins in a vein of doom-laden stereotype works through to a well- earned vote of confidence in human nature. As with Terry Johnson, apparently unrelated elements are thrown together, generating a plot that moves towards an unforeseeable destination.

In Lesley Bruce's Keyboard Skills, a junior government minister rolls back home at 3am and spends the rest of the play writhing under his wife's ironic questions until every humiliating secret of the night has been squeezed out of him. Any spouse who has gone out jogging with 10 pence for a clandestine phone call will acknowledge the deadly comic accuracy of Bruce's ear for the yelping cadences of male sexual evasion.

First performed at the Bush last autumn, this piece was a hilarious curtain-raiser to the Tory party's subsequent bedroom farce. The interrogation scenes are devastatingly funny. But what makes the play is its counterpoint between the lies of middle age, and the hopeful scenes from the couple's past. Not least the monologues of the wife's secretarial school teacher - a high-comedy queen bee, who talks of pagination and line spacing as if of the Ten Commandments while also representing a code of accuracy and self-respect in stark contrast to the lying rigmaroles of the way we live now. Once again, a play succeeds by assembling scattered elements.

Keyboard Skills was a runner-up for this year's Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, a transatlantic award for women playwrights. The winner, Jane Coles's Backstroke in a Crowded Pool (also first seen at the Bush) was another multi- subject comedy. It followed two girls from their straightforward job as swimming-pool guards into tangled encounters with racist bigotry, animal rights activism and other single-issue obsessions all embraced by the title metaphor.

As one of the Smith Blackburn judges, I was excited to find that this kind of writing is not confined to Britain. It cropped up again and again among the American entries. One piece concerned a cancer-stricken professor of literature, and attacked the subject through the separate vocabularies of medicine and metaphysical poetry. Another examined male-imposed conventions of female beauty by staging a hospital encounter between an 18th-century victim of Chinese foot- binding, a corseted Victorian wife and a New Jersey sufferer from silicone implants. In every case, the result of pulling widely separated material together was to forge a strong narrative line that owed nothing to routine story-telling.

There's a Russian fable of a gudgeon that lives under a stone on the river bed, venturing out at night for a quick dinner and then diving back to the only place where it feels safe. There have been playwrights who behave like that. Now it seems they are coming out of hiding and, in the process, learning to tell a true tale - which I am tempted to label as the 'Comedy of Connection'. It may not invariably yield main- stage hits. It is certainly a move towards healing social divisions and taking new writing out of its self-imposed ghetto. It would get the approval of Hazlitt, who said the stage existed 'to reconcile our numberless discordant, incommensurable feelings and interests . . . and rally us round the standard of our common humanity'.

'Dead Funny': Hampstead, NW3 (071- 722 9301) to 26 Mar (returns only); then Vaudeville, WC2 (071-836 9987) from 6 Apr. 'Beautiful Thing': Donmar, WC2 (071-867 1150) from 30 Mar. 'Keyboard Skills': Nuffield, Southampton (0703 671771) from 19 May.

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