WHAT'S THE DEAL, PATRICK?

His first play was so good it was put on by the National. Now Patrick Marber is back with his follow-up to `Dealer's Choice'. But still he's not sure he wouldn't rather be idling away his time in front of the television

The Story so far, in Patrick Marber's own words: "Born in 1964, grew up in Wimbledon, middle-class, Jewish, went to Oxford, started doing comedy, started writing for television, radio, wrote a play, directed a couple of plays, wrote another play. No life-plan, no system of anything." Put like that it all sounds remarkably simple, doesn't it? But Marber is not, I would contend, a simple and uncomplicated person.

Let's start by putting some flesh on those bones, beginning at the end: "Wrote another play." The other play is Closer, which he wrote to a commission from the Royal National Theatre. He won't let me read a script, because it is constantly changing during rehearsal, but says that it's a four- hander set in London in the 1990s, and that it's about "the poker-game of love, sex, desire, as it were - the series of manipulations and counter- manipulations we all seem to get into, the mess we make of our love lives ... It's a romantic comedy in places, and it's quite brutal and aggressive in others, and there's a fair amount of fruity language in it, and we shall see." The first production, which he is also directing, opens at the Cottesloe theatre at the end of this month; it is expected that it will be rather good.

The reason for that is the play he wrote before this one: Dealer's Choice, which opened at the National, in the Lyttelton, in early 1995, was about the poker-game of, well, poker - a sharp, cynical comedy which used gambling to explore father- son relationships and the ways that men compete with and manipulate one another. It too was commissioned by the National - the first time it had ever commissioned a new playwright - after Richard Eyre, the company's artistic director, saw a rehearsed reading of Dealer's Choice and realised that Marber was "preternaturally mature for a first-time playwright". Marber directed the premiere production (the first time he had ever directed a play), Eyre having decided that he obviously knew what he was doing. The play won unanimous praise from the critics, the Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy, a West End transfer, and the Writers' Guild Award for Best West End Play.

In between there were the two stage plays which Marber directed but didn't write - Craig Raine's 1953 at the Almeida Theatre, a counter-factual version of Racine set in a Nazi-dominated Europe in the year of the title, which got a mixed critical reception; and Dennis Potter's Blue Remembered Hills, for the National again, which split the reviewers down the middle - some adored it, the rest dismissed it. And he directed his own adaptation of Strindberg's Miss Julie for BBC2.

We have hardly scratched the surface of the television career, but you get the basic idea: Marber is doing very nicely. Or as the Daily Telegraph wrote when Dealer's Choice opened, "Struggling young playwrights might be forgiven for regarding Patrick Marber with teeth-grinding envy."

Of course, before all this success there were the years of struggle. After Oxford, Marber spent a year as part of a comedy double-act which he would rather wasn't discussed. As it happens, I saw them once in a club in West Hampstead, and thought they were all right; but they were trying to present slapstick and physical comedy to audiences who were there to watch stand-up. The other half of the duo later said that over the year they spent together he came to think of Marber as the anti-Christ; so you gather that one way or another it was not a happy time.

After that came four years of being a stand-up himself. One friend produces this as an example of his self-discipline: "He put himself through all that time doing stand-up which he claimed he never liked, didn't enjoy, didn't think he was very good at, but he did it because he thought he should." He wouldn't allow friends to come along to watch him. He can't have been too bad, though, since he shared bills with Jack Dee and Jo Brand.

At the end of this period he hooked up with Steve Coogan as co-writer and director, helping him to make the shift from impressionist to character comedian; Coogan's first Edinburgh Fringe show under Marber's tutelage won him the Per-rier Award. The pair moved on to write for and perform in the brilliant radio current affairs spoof On the Hour and its television successor The Day Today; and Marber has been involved with most of Coogan's television work: Knowing Me, Knowing You, Coogan's Run, the various Paul and Pauline Calf vehicles. Then his agent got him a meeting with the National Theatre Studio to talk about an idea he had for a play. They gave him the opportunity to workshop the idea with some actors, and out popped Dealer's Choice.

You would have to say that the rapidity with which Marber has ascended of the pinnacles of theatrical achievement imply ambition and tenacity. He himself denies this: "I am," he says, apparently bent on ruining the bridgework of an entire playwriting generation, "naturally lazy", happiest lounging in front of the television in his swish Clerkenwell pad with his girlfriend and his beloved West Highland terrier, Riley. (Is having a pet a substitute for real commitment? He doesn't hesitate: "Yes.")

By his own account, he's a born waster. But plenty of testimony exists to contradict this view. Craig Raine describes him as "dedicated", "thorough" and "absolutely meticulous", and adds, "I think he works quite hard at not appearing driven." Vicki Mortimer, a friend since Oxford days, designed 1953 and is now working on Closer. She snorts at the idea that Marber is lazy, and contributes "conscientious", "rigorous" and "incredibly hard on himself". Even at university, she says, "he was always very determined and very clear, maybe not about what he was going to do, but the fact that he was going to do something."

Still, in wasting terms he does have quite an impressive cv. For one thing, he is a long-term gambling addict. The bug bit him during his second year at university, when a friend took him to a casino: "And I just thought, 'Yeah, this is the life, this is good'. But it's like any addiction, they find you ... I hadn't been particularly interested in drugs or alcohol and then I found gambling and thought, 'Yeah, that's what I am'."

He started out playing blackjack, plus a bit of roulette; later he progressed to poker. By the time he graduated, he was heavily in debt ("Now, pitifully small amounts, but when I was 22 to owe a grand to the bank was a fortune ... The amount of times I've sold my record collection to Record and Tape Exchange and then had to go and buy it all back"). A spell with Gamblers' Anonymous didn't put paid to the problem; being a comedian didn't help, since gambling comedians are, according to Marber, commonplace. The problem seems to have eased in recent years, partly because of sheer pressure of work, partly through the therapy of writing Dealer's Choice. "Now I've written a play about sex," he muses, "I'm wondering whether that's going to go as well."

With the gambling goes a distinctly depressive streak - something that peeped out during his year or so writing a weekly column for the Observer. This was sometimes surreal and very funny, sometimes indulgent to the point of self-pity.

Today, in an upstairs office at the National theatre, he seems chipper after a good day's rehearsal for Closer. But last year he told a journalist that he had spent 10 years clinically depressed, though without ever being treated. When we talk about his literary influences he mentions that he progressed, at 13 or 14, straight from Enid Blyton to Camus and Kafka, "European angst literature", following that with a big Beckett phase: "I think certainly given the kind of books I was reading in my teens, yeah, I was always prone to it. I have my black spots." Again, though, "I think I've been too busy of late to really give into it."

In 1991, he "chucked in his life" and went to live in a garret in Paris for some months; and he says he's still conscious of the urge simply to "bum about". In Closer, "one of the characters is engaged in that struggle, between being out there in the world achieving things, or being an internal person in his room, pissing around on the Net." One scene takes place entirely on the Internet - no dialogue, just words flashed up on stage. "I think the Internet certainly has opened up a new kind of inertia for people like me, where we don't have to get dressed, where we can just sit in our pyjamas and access the universe. I'm a potential Internet junkie. It's just that I haven't worked out how to use it yet. I'm like an alcoholic who doesn't know how to open the bottle."

If you were to take Marber at his own valuation, then, you might regard him as a shiftless neurotic, a loafer who happens to have drifted to the peaks of other people's ambition. Other people's valuations stress other aspects of his personality - his charm, for example. Craig Raine, who regards him as "very likeable, not to say lovable", talks of how in rehearsals for 1953 he "won the cast over, charmed them, charmed me". A woman friend from university calls him "an amazingly hard charmer - quite irresistible in a way" and attributes this to his "basilisk stares". Richard Eyre sounds a note of caution about taking him at face value: "I wouldn't say what you see is what he is." He goes on: "But he's very courteous, droll, private, introspective, determined, he's got a great curiosity and a great generosity about other people's work."

In contrast to the formlessness that he claims for his life, Marber is keen on form both in his own writing - Closer has a rigid structure of 12 scenes in 12 locations, six scenes in each act - and in that of others. "The writing I admire tends to be beautifully constructed. I like the well-made play, the constructed novel, as opposed to the picaresque, rambling ... " For instance? "In theatre, Pinter, Mamet, Stoppard. But in prose, Joyce, Nabokov, Beckett, the usual suspects of any youngish writer. Martin Amis, obviously ... But they all tend to be formalists."

There's a suggestion that these names are not merely influences, but that they occupy a literary high ground that Marber himself aspires to: "I want to write good plays, I want to write plays that people like now and I want them to survive. But I don't want to run the National theatre, I don't want to make a big noise, I just want to go on quietly doing what I'm doing and hope that it's appreciated and, ultimately, revered."

Reverence is already on the cards. Raine describes him as "depressingly gifted: I was writing a play last year, doing a first draft, and then Patrick sent me two scenes from his new play and it completely demoralised me. I thought, 'Christ, this is what it is to be a top-flight dramatist'. It put me in a depression for about four days." Eyre is more guarded: "It would be unfair to him to put a mark on him, because it's notoriously difficult after a successful first play to follow it up." But, "unlike a lot of young playwrights he really is interested in structure and he really is interested in how you get better as a playwright." Eyre thinks Closer is more ambitious and interesting than Dealer's Choice. Marber himself reckons that his writing is "less meat and two veg"; where Dealer's was broadly comic and realist in style, Closer is bleaker, and the tone more heightened and poetic.

Whether the crowds that flocked to Dealer's Choice will like the change is another matter. Perhaps Closer will flop, and he'll be off to Paris, or will take up the gambling life. Raine sees no reason to be anxious: "If I was him," he says, "I'd be happy."

!`Closer': Cottesloe, SE1 (0171 928 2252), previews from 22 May and opens on 29 May.

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